Guest Blog: The importance of compassion and self-compassion in education by Fabienne Vailes
The latest guest blog at thegratefulacademic.com is all about compassion, from the wonderful Fabienne Vailes. Fabienne is an educational expert with over 20 years’ experience in the sector, on a mission to change the face of education – embedding well-being to create an environment where both students and staff thrive and become curious flourishing lifelong learners.
She writes her blog on the importance of compassion not only for others, but importantly for ourselves.
Compassion /kəmˈpæʃ.ən/ noun
A strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering of others and a wish to help
We live in a very fast paced society that encourages us to be individualistic and quite competitive. If you don’t agree with me, simply switch on your TV, and watch the programmes on offer. You need to compete to bake a cake, to ice-skate, to find love, to dance, etc.
As Dr Dominique Thompson and I indicated in our book How to Grow a Grown up, the issue with this is that it leads to perfectionism, fear of failure, imposter syndrome and ‘comparatitis’, the drive to compare ourselves to others mainly negatively.
The truth is that life can be hard, and COVID-19 and the pandemic have certainly brought their challenges and difficulties for us all. All humans suffer and experience difficulties.
I am no exception. I am currently on a one-year career break which started on 1st September 2021 and on that exact day at 8am my father-in-law passed away. A month later my son broke his femur whilst playing rugby.
When we experience periods of adversity which we tend to label as ‘downs’ or ‘negatives’, we want them to go away as quickly as possible. Let’s be honest, none of us really enjoy pain and suffering. We react in the opposite way with positive situations or events. We want to hang on to them and to the nice feelings they generate.
But what we have not been taught is that it is not when everything is going well that we question, grow, or transform. It is much more when we experience challenges. When we go through difficult situations, when we experience these periods of ‘transition’, we are literally changed.
Several years ago, I trained as a mindfulness teacher, and I practice daily. There are two tools which played a vital role in my life when I experienced grief and when my son hurt himself: compassion and self-compassion.
What are compassion and self-compassion?
According to Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas (2010), compassion involves sensitivity to the experience of suffering, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering . If we walk past a young homeless person, we may feel compassion for them if we are able to pause and stop long enough rather than rushing past them. We may start thinking about how difficult life might be for them. If we start viewing life from their map of the world rather than ours, we can connect a lot more to their suffering and as a result, might want to support them. Compassion enables us to connect to others and for me, it’s a way to be less self-centred and focused on my problems and to realise that very often other people are experiencing deeper challenges than I am.
Self-compassion has been researched a lot and Dr Neff has useful and interesting activities that you can access for free on her website . Dr Neff says that ‘with self-compassion we give ourselves the same kindness and care we would give to a good friend’.
So, let’s explore more specifically what the key elements of self-compassion are and why it may be useful.
The three components of self-compassion when we need it most
Self-compassion involves recognising when we are suffering, stressed or struggling at a given moment in time without exaggerating or diminishing our experiences.
It requires being understanding and supportive towards ourselves when we are having a hard time rather than being harshly self-critical.
We remember that everyone makes mistakes and experiences difficulties at times. We are not alone. This is part of our common humanity!
I particularly like this image that illustrate these key points so beautifully
So how can you practice self-compassion?
Here are two easy exercises that I learned by visiting Dr Neff’s website which I use regularly.
EXERCICE 1 – how would you treat your friend
Think about the last time a close friend or family member experienced a difficult situation. How did you speak to them? Write down some of the comments you made and what supportive language you used.
Now, think about the last time you experienced a difficulty or a challenge. What sort of language did you use to talk to yourself? Was it the same as with your friend?
Are there any key differences? What fears of factors may come into play that would lead you to treat yourself so differently than your friend or family?
What steps are you going to take next time you experience a challenge?
EXERCICE 2 – Supportive touch
Did you know that touch activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is our soothing system which helps us feel calm and safe? The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t make a difference if the touch comes from you or from others. It will respond in the same way to gestures of warmth and care. Super simple yet extremely effective.
When I give presentations, or I feel quite stressed during the day I put my hands on my heart.
Take 2-3 deep breaths.
Put one or two hands over your heart or chest. Decide what feels best for you.
Feel the touch of your hand(s) on your chest.
Feel the sensation of the natural movement as you breathe in and out.
Keep doing this until you start feeling calmer.
If you don’t feel comfortable putting your hand over your heart or chest, you can put one hand on your cheek, stroke your arms, cross your arms and give yourself a gentle squeeze, put your hand on your abdomen or cup one hand in the other in your lap.
These exercises will only be beneficial if you use them on regularly so I would like to encourage you to find what works best for YOU.
Top tips on building self-compassion:
Enjoy and don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions or if you want to share your experience of compassion and self-compassion. You can find my contact details details at the end of this blog post. Feel free to join our Guild – a group for parents, carers, guardians, teachers, young people, and employers interested in change in education and in creating a new education culture to nurture a responsible, respectful, loving and humane society.
About the author:
Fabienne Vailes is a UK expert on emotional and mental well-being within the education sector. Author of The Flourishing Student – Every Tutors’ Guide to Promoting Mental Health, Well-being and Resilience in HE, now in its second edition, Fabienne presents her ground-breaking Flourishing Student Model, which is also the focus of further research under a Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching Fellowship at the University of Bristol.
Read more about her work at flourishingeducation.co.uk and if you fancy discovering more about mindfulness and compassion, check out her latest course ‘Press the Pause button’ (currently available at a discounted price).
 Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 351-374
 Self-Compassion by Dr Kristin Neff https://self-compassion.org/