By: Erin Swanson, M.Ed.
Teachers—this might ring a bell. Many of us go into the teaching profession because we feel it is our mission in life, or heart’s desire, to help children.
While this is an honorable goal, it can lead to unrealistic, high expectations of ourselves. We try to meet each student’s academic, social, and emotional needs. We might shoulder the weight of our students’ physical health, trauma, and home lives. It’s impossible to be everything to every student, but we often feel that we need to be.
When I was a teacher, I put immense pressure on myself—and felt the pressure put upon me—to help my students thrive in all areas of their lives. I began to blame myself if a lesson plan, school year, or child’s progress didn’t go as expected.
To add insult to injury, I’d see a flawlessly decorated classroom or phenomenal science project on Pinterest, and I’d think, “I’m not good enough. I’m letting my students down.”
As teachers, we strive to show empathy to our students. Yet, the hardest part is showing empathy to ourselves.
Why Do Teachers Need Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristen Neff, leading psychologist and expert in self-compassion, found that “people who practice self-compassion experience fewer negative emotions and stay emotionally balanced in difficult situations—both of which, according to a study on emotional exhaustion among teachers, help prevent teacher burnout.”
Even more, this study showed that a “mindfulness intervention adapted for educators boosts aspects of teachers’ mindfulness and self-compassion, reduces psychological symptoms and burnout, increases effective teaching behavior, and reduces attentional biases.”
What is Self-Compassion?
Humans have a natural tendency towards negativity bias for survival—that’s where our inner critic comes from. Self-compassion is the practice of recognizing our inner critic and replacing it with an inner voice of support, understanding, and care.
According to clinical social worker, Megan Logan:
“Self-compassion centers around practicing kindness and respect toward ourselves. It also requires openness and vulnerability in acknowledging past trauma or mistakes and working through difficult emotions like anger, hurt, and sadness. Self-compassion allows us to release criticism and self-judgment.” – Megan Logan, MSW, LCSW
How is Self-Compassion Different from Self-Esteem or Self-Pity?
Self-esteem comes from focusing on our accomplishments as a measure of our self-worth. Unfortunately, self-esteem doesn’t comfort us when we make mistakes. Self-compassion, on the other hand, shows us that our worth is not dependent on the outcome and that we are worthy of love and understanding, even when we fall short of our goals.
Self-pity sets a tone of “poor me.” Self-pity leads to dwelling on how hard things are for you and feeling bad for yourself. Self-compassion is different. With self-compassion, we recognize that we’re having a moment of suffering, but also recognize that suffering is part of the human experience, and we’re not alone in this.
Will I Lose My Edge If I Practice Self-Compassion?
It’s a myth that self-compassion is weak or will cause you to lose motivation. Some people think that criticizing yourself helps you improve. Believe me, I am my own worst critic, and I struggle with perfectionism. I hold myself to the highest standard, but then criticize myself when I fall short.
For many years now, I’ve been learning how to practice self-compassion. I’ve noticed it now motivates me more than self-criticism, because self-compassion makes me more resilient to bounce back from mistakes and try again.
The thing is, you can be driven and go after your goals with the same rigor and enthusiasm, but simply be more gentle with yourself when you slip up. Look at mistakes, failures, or inadequacies as a learning opportunity and moment of growth. Sound familiar to the growth mindset lesson you taught your students? It is. Motivation can come from the journey, not the perfect product at the end.
Research shows that “higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure … Because self-compassionate individuals do not berate themselves when they fail, they are more able to admit mistakes, modify unproductive behaviors, and take on new challenges.”
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Dr. Kristen Neff explains that mindfulness is the foundation of self-compassion. Practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to be with things as they are and be with ourselves as we are. It fosters an accepting, nonjudgmental attitude toward what arises—whether it’s pain in our lives or something we don’t like about ourselves.
Research suggests that teachers who practice mindfulness are less likely to experience negative emotions and depression and are more likely to enjoy a positive state of mind. Mindfulness helps us notice and bring attention to difficult thoughts, so we can then respond with compassion.
The iRest® method of mindfulness, which the JabuMind app for teachers uses, teaches 10 tools for mindfulness. One of these tools is Welcoming Opposites of Thought. This tool teaches people to welcome both their positive and negative thoughts as messengers. When you get stuck in a negative mindset, your brain is giving you a message that you need to address your suffering. Healing begins when you realize that feeling of being stuck and that it’s time to consider new ways of thinking.
The idea is not to suppress negative thinking or suffering, but rather to bring your awareness to it, feel it fully, and then decide whether you need to take action to address it or move to a new frame of mind. It’s a dance—gliding from one way of thinking to another with awareness and nonjudgment.
5 Mindfulness Tools for Self-Compassion
1) Listen to self-compassion meditations on the JabuMind app
We created a self-compassion meditation specifically designed for teachers in the JabuMind app. Take a moment during recess, lunch, or a prep period to find a quiet moment to listen. One of my favorite places for a quiet moment during the teaching day? The bathroom! It’s the one place you’re guaranteed not to be interrupted.
2) Repeat affirmations for self-compassion:
From The Self-Love Workbook for Women
- “I am doing the best that I can right now, and that is enough.”
- “I am worthy, even when I struggle.”
- “I can allow myself to feel all my emotions, even uncomfortable ones.”
- “My thoughts are just thoughts.”
- “I can make mistakes. They are a normal part of growing and learning.”
- “I am learning and growing every day.”
3) Practice self-soothing, caring touch
- Give yourself a hug—fold your arms together in a discreet way and give yourself a little squeeze
- Give yourself a hand massage
- Place your hand on your heart and breathe
4) Speak to yourself with kindness
- Work on replacing your inner critic voice with the voice that you would use to comfort and encourage a friend, family member, or student.
- Reframe hurtful inner critic comments with supportive, understanding ones.
- Instead of, “I am so stupid,” you might say, “I am learning a challenging new skill, and it’s okay that this is hard for me right now.”
5) Recognize our common humanity
- Remember that everyone struggles, makes mistakes, and has parts of themselves they don’t like. No one is perfect.
One Step at a Time
Developing the skill of self-compassion takes practice. Start by listening to the self-compassion meditation for teachers in the JabuMind app. From there, try one new habit at a time. Perhaps it’s choosing a self-compassion affirmation that you repeat to yourself in times of struggle. Over time, you’ll build a toolkit of habits and strengthen those self-compassion muscles.
About the Author: Erin has a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Before joining JabuMind, Erin was an elementary school teacher for the first, fourth, and fifth grades in both public and private schools throughout California and Oregon. She is also certified to teach children’s yoga. Erin is passionate about helping teachers address compassion fatigue and burnout with mindfulness.
“Exploring the Association between Teachers’ Perceived Student Misbehaviour and Emotional Exhaustion: the Importance of Teacher Efficacy Beliefs and Emotion Regulation.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01443410903494460.
Flook, Lisa, et al. “Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout and Teaching Efficacy.” Mind, Brain and Education : the Official Journal of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3855679/.
Neff, Kristin D. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself.” Human Development, S. Karger AG, June 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790748/.