Steve’s reflections as the year comes to an end

Looking back on 2019, I have been most struck by the importance and utility of compassion, toward both others and ourselves.

In my psychology practice and training conversations, I have often been reminded of how hard we can be on ourselves. We live in a world filled with both opportunity and information. It can be very easy to compare our lives to the lives of others, or to some imagined standard. We are bombarded with information on how we might be a better leader, parent, planetary citizen, or human being. These can easily become the yardsticks against which we measure ourselves, and end up feeling that we’re failing. The digital age also provides our inner critics with plenty of material.

Self-compassion – the ability to be kind to oneself, to connect with our common humanity, and to experience both negative and positive emotions without being captured by them – helps to silence our inner critics and minimise the impact they have on our lives.

I’ve also been struck by the need for compassion for one another. In an age where algorithms and politics seek to capture our attention with vitriol and fear, compassion is a much-needed antidote. I saw it offered in moments of national grief after the Christchurch shootings, and provide some salve and comfort to a nation in shock and mourning. I’ve also seen it offered in small moments, such as when a first responder shed a tear with a colleague as they talked through the fears he had for his daughter. Extending aroha toward another human being, sitting with them in their distress and offering earnest compassion, can precipitate healing, resilience and growth. For both.

Brené Brown and Kirsten Neff are two researchers from quite different traditions. Brené Brown is a Texan social worker and qualitative researcher whose work comes from a “ground up”, story-led approach. Kirsten Neff, a psychologist and academic whose work is based on eastern contemplative practices, comes from a more quantitative tradition. However, both their bodies of research have arrived at some common principles, and the benefits of compassion sit at the heart of them.

Their research indicates that compassion for both self and others helps us work more effectively with others and build closer bonds, plus it reduces burnout, improves our mood, and enables us to laugh more, to name just a few powerful outcomes. Interestingly, both Brown’s and Neff’s research also suggests that compassion helps us hold boundaries in our relationships more effectively. It appears that, when we hold the perspective that both we and others are good people, doing our best, we are more able to have difficult conversations. We respect others enough to know they can bear it, and don’t conflate the possibility of making others feel bad with being a bad person ourselves.

So, as we think about what we will bring our attention and effort to in 2020, I’d like to offer the thoughts of the late, great Otis Redding, and “Try a little Tenderness”.  It might make our lives richer, more connected and less frazzled.

Stephen Kearney
Registered Clinical Psychologist