Dr Reena Kotecha stood in the supermarket after another hectic night shift. Exhausted and famished, this brilliant physician couldn’t even choose a box of cereal from the shelves in front of her, and left empty-handed and still hungry.
Under the typical overwhelming pressures of a medical career, Dr Kotecha experienced depression and thoughts of suicide.
Self-compassion is key to Dr Kotecha’s recovery and current success as an employee wellbeing consultant. It’s the skill of “treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling”, as self-compassion researcher, Dr Kristin Neff, defines it. Research shows self-compassion decreases depression, stress, disordered eating and chronic pain. At the same time, it increases happiness, optimism, hope, healthy behaviours, and immune function.
Dr Kotecha says evolution physically shaped our brains to look for the negative. Our ancestors survived by watching for danger and potential failure, not by being self-compassionate. And culturally, most of us believe pointing out weakness is how we’re motivated to grow.
When Dr Kotecha was struggling with depression, she too struggled with negative comments about herself. “I would tell myself I’m a failure, I’m useless, I’m not worthwhile.” But while on sick leave from her job due to poor mental health, a mindfulness and yoga teacher showed her how to treat herself with compassion.
Over time I realised that her compassion was giving me space to ‘be’ just as I am. And in turn this was having a hugely positive impact on my recovery
“I would often share these negative thoughts about myself with my teacher and she would reflect back a sense of love, kindness and acceptance without judgement. Over time I realised that her compassion was giving me space to ‘be’ just as I am. And in turn this was having a hugely positive impact on my recovery. I began to internalise her voice. Every time I ‘messed up’ I would hear her gentle words of loving kindness and repeat them back to myself.”
Dr Kotecha then started to write down the comments she made about herself, alongside what she would say to a friend in the same situation. She was confronted by the stark difference between how judgmental and harsh she was with herself, compared to a friend. “I’d then soothe myself by placing my hands on my heart and repeating the words I’d written for my friend back to myself.”
Dr Neff says in her own difficult times, she too treats herself like her own kindest friend with warm words such as: “This is a moment of struggle”, “You're not alone in this”, and “I've got your back”.
Critics dismiss self-compassion as a soft, weak and selfish approach. “My personal and professional experience has been quite the opposite,” says Dr Kotecha. “The more loving, kind and accepting you are of yourself, the more energy and reserve you have to achieve your goals and serve others along the way.”
Dr Neff explains self-compassion as having both soft and tough qualities – a “yin” and “yang”. She says the yin energy is comforting, while the yang energy provides motivation. Think of the yang element as a formidable “mama bear” who protects and provides whatever her cubs need. Dr Neff points out that one of the reasons self-compassion increases our motivation is because it makes it OK to try and fail.
Compassion brings us self-confidence and inner strength
To the Dalai Llama, developing your compassion muscles is for the health of the whole community as well as your own. On videolink from India at a recent Sydney happiness conference, he says: “Compassion brings us self-confidence and inner strength, including myself. We need more compassionate individuals, so that individual becomes much happier. And then the whole family becomes much happier, the community becomes a more compassionate community, therefore, a happier community.”
The Dalai Lama believes we don’t learn enough about compassion in a typical life, and the ideal education includes studying compassion. “Education should be more complete, not just focused on material values, but internal values.”
Dr Kotecha couldn’t achieve what she does without being her own best friend first. As she says, “health care begins with self-care.
“Doctors who I work with…report that self-compassion has helped them reduce burnout, and feel happier and healthier in themselves. As a result they are more available to meet their patients’ needs and the demands of medical practice.”
Louise Wedgwood is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @LouiseWedgwood.
Anyone seeking support and information about suicide and depression can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.