Counsellor’s Corner: Self-Compassion – An Absolute Necessity

The counsellor who practices self-compassion may be the best counsellor of all!

We wouldn’t be guidance counsellors if we weren’t compassionate by nature. This is one of the most admirable qualities we possess. We strive to do our best by showing:

  • the student sitting across from us kindness and understanding;
  • by the employing compassion in our messaging at grade assemblies where we present information on grad requirements, volunteer opportunities, post-secondary planning;
  • through all the meetings—lots of meetings—where we sit and listen to the questions and concerns of admin and staff members; and when we are asked to present to staff, department heads and parent councils about various guidance-related topics.

We do our best day-in and day-out to show tenderness, empathy, and sympathy and help our students who are in distress. We then go home to our other lives—our children, our partners, our parents, our pets—who we may also take care of.  With all this expression of compassion, many counsellors can feel exhausted and depleted.

Something I have been trying to learn and adopt is the practice of self-compassion as a guidance counsellor.  When discussing “balance” with a good friend of mine, Sean Dolan (who writes for this magazine) a few years back, he recommended an article called “The Five Myths of Self-Compassion: What Keeps us form Being Kinder to Ourselves?” by Kristen Neff that was published in Psychotherapy Networker in October 2015. She outlines the myths we tend to believe when it comes to self-compassion.

According to Neff, the five myths of self-compassion include:

  1. Self-compassion is a form of self-pity
  2. Self-compassion means weakness
  3. Self-compassion will make me complacent
  4. Self-compassion is narcissistic
  5. Self-compassion is selfish

I will explore three of these myths in this article as they connect to our role in guidance.

Self-compassion as a form of self-pity:

The research outlined in Neff’s article found that people who practice self-compassion regularly and are good to themselves regularly and, in turn, treat others with the compassion they deserve. In other words, by practicing self-compassion, you are not pitying yourself.  Rather, you are able to see and accept the difficult feelings you are experiencing with kindness. In fact, research has shown that people who practice self-compassion have better mental health. As guidance counsellors who do career and education planning, and work with students and families who are struggling with issues of mental health, practicing some self-compassion can only benefit them personally and professionally as they will be better able to give themselves to their students.

Self-compassion means weakness:

Instead of thinking of self-compassion as a weakness, Neff points out that “researchers are discovering that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience available to us. When we go through major life crises, self-compassion appears to make all the difference in our ability to survive and even thrive.” Like our students, teachers and counsellors are going through real-life struggles and challenges.  We need to embrace those struggles. To be able to show vulnerability is a gift that, if we as guidance counsellors can practice, we may be better able to empathize and consequently help students, families, and teachers—even if those we are serving view self-compassion is a form of weakness. 

Self-compassion will make me complacent:

Neff believes that the biggest block to the practice of self-compassion is this: if we do not self-criticize when we do something wrong or fail (in a distorted attempt to self-motivate) then we will become complacent and defeatist in our efforts to do better or improve.  However, research has found that “self-compassion is a far more effective force for personal motivation than self-punishment.” How many times have you put yourself down when a parent/student didn’t appreciate your professional advice?  How much negative self-talk did you engage in?  Self-compassion is not a way to not be accountable for what we do, but rather it can strengthen our accountability. If we can move away from harsh self-judgment, we may give ourselves the space to come up with different solutions and find the support needed to do our best.

Practicing self-compassion

The practice of self-compassion involves how we talk to ourselves when struggling with something in our lives; how kind are we in our experience of suffering.  The goal of self-compassion as a guidance counsellor is to remain kind to ourselves. In other words, we need to stop being so critical and hard on ourselves.  Negative self-talk and becoming jaded can lead us down a rabbit hole where we may feel unworthy, or that our efforts are either not enough or not appreciated. 

As a professional in an industry centered around compassion, selflessness, and putting the social and emotional well-being of others ahead of our own, I now believe a great guidance counsellor is one that practices self-compassion—something I did not practice for many years.  As I become more tenured in this profession, I feel a bit of wisdom is creeping into my perspective. Neff describes this wisdom as “recognition of our common humanity.”   I need to practice self-compassion, in any form I see fit, every day (and this may look different daily, depending on my needs that day). I recognize that, like my students, I too am flawed and imperfect. Not every day is going to be a great one, and as Neff describes, “just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune.”  For me, to be self-compassionate allows me to be better able to serve and be compassionate towards the students I guide.  And the consequence of that is that I end up role modelling self-compassion to the students and families I connect with daily.

So, as we begin another school year, please remember to be kind to yourself. Acknowledge what causes you stress, understand you are not perfect, advocate for your needs, and let’s all practice some self-compassion.

By: Anna Macri