By Dr Lynne Reeder
In these unsettled times, learning self-care skills is more important than ever for women. Recently, there has been a lot of focus on us being resilient and continually bouncing back from worrying events. But what I am hearing from colleagues and friends is that they can't bounce back anymore. Instead, they want their suffering to be seen, heard and supported to get them through yet another ordeal.
We need compassion and self-compassion skills to better care for ourselves. When you are having a difficult time, that involves acting the same towards yourself as you would towards a good friend.
Instead of judging and criticising yourself for various shortcomings – self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.
By stopping and noticing how things are in this moment, without judging, and by working wisely with a healthy dose of self-compassion when we can't do that, we can improve how we support our mind and body.
Managing our emotions is important because the science of compassion – which comes mostly from neuroscience and neuropsychology research – is finding that people who can manage their emotions well are better able to recover more quickly from stress.
And in that state of relaxed alertness, they are better able to deeply hear and compassionately connect to themselves and others.
Dr Kristen Neff is one of the world's leading researchers and thinkers in this area. Her most recent book is Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive.
She has identified three key elements of self-compassion. The first of these is Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment, which entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties are inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences.
The second is Common humanity vs. Isolation – Dr Neff states that self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to "me" alone. Removing that sense of isolation is very important.
And the third key element is Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Self-compassion requires a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This balanced approach allows us to see the experiences of others' suffering, which helps us to put our situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity so that they are held in mindful awareness.
Daniel Goleman, who wrote the first book on emotional intelligence, reminds us that being aware of our emotional state is the necessary first step in developing self-control skills and empathic connections to others.
We need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first because we can only understand the emotional tendencies and triggers of others if we understand our own.
Emotion regulation skills require recognising and disengaging from self-perpetuating patterns of negative thoughts. By becoming 'the observer' of our thoughts, we can improve our basic means of shifting mental gears and be supported to make new choices.
Women’s health week runs from 5-11 September 2022. Dr Lynne Reeder is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Federation University and the National Lead of the Australian Charter for Compassion (ACC).
The ACC is holding a National Day of Compassion on 21 September. For more information on how you can get involved in the day, including a live event that features neuropsychologist and New York Times bestselling author Dr Rick Hanson, visit www.charterforcompassion.com.au