by Jelena Popovic
When I first read Dr. Rick Hansen’s words saying that unpleasant experiences attach themselves to our minds like Velcro and pleasant experiences slide away like things on Teflon, I thought to myself, I can really relate to that! At the time I was a practicing school psychologist trying to find programs and interventions to foster self-regulation, empathy, and resilience in my students who were facing learning and social-emotional challenges.
As I was reading Dr. Hansen’s words, it hit me that as a mother and educator, I felt I was made out of Velcro. Everything stuck. All the time. Like many caretakers, it was not just my personal unpleasant experiences that stuck, but unpleasant experiences of others, including my family, friends, the students I was working with, their families, families of their families, etc.
Naturally, as my mind ran out of the space for things to stick, it needed to find a way to cope, and its coping mechanism of choice was suppression. I became a master of suppression, an expert “self-bully,” often minimizing and/or suppressing my unpleasant feelings, yet continuing to attune and attend to the unpleasant feelings of others. Suppression would probably have led me to burnout, empathy fatigue, and some kind of physical or mental ailment if not for my mindfulness practice, especially the practice of self-compassion. Mindfulness practice has shone the light on the Velcro-suppressive tendency of my mind; self-compassion practice continues to guide me toward self-acceptance and growth.
Through curiosity, practice, and training, I have explored all three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity. Self-compassion has helped me learn how to approach myself with kind, mindful awareness and recognize that I am not alone in my experiences, but rather a part of common humanity. I had to acknowledge the fact that I needed as much tenderness, loving care and resilience growth as my students did if I was going to continue to provide them with intentional presence and sustainable skills.
Practicing self-compassion is an invitation to notice, turn toward, connect, and offer kindness to our inner critic and to our discomfort. The critical inner voice is often louder and harsher than any criticism we have received from others. Self-compassion practice invites us to create and offer loving-kindness and compassionate phases we need to hear and can gently whisper to ourselves, allowing our whole being to feel them deeply. In times of stress, these phases in combination with intentional attunement to body sensations can become our own refuge.
My self-compassion practice often includes these words to my inner critic: “Yes, this is painful. I am sorry this is hard for you. I see you and I surely hear you. You are not alone. Come here, be with me. May I have the strength and the patience you need now. I offer you my attention and care. What do you need now?” Recently, I started to include the question of, “What is nurturing now?” which has opened a whole new gateway of love and care for me. It is through this practice of gentle, connected presence that I’m continuing to learn how to take loving care of myself as I am caring for other people.
Self-compassion is a practice of vulnerability. It has challenged me to fully experience being human, accept myself completely, and love and embrace my imperfect human self — and that is the hardest thing in the world to do! Knowing we are worthy, lovable, and enough just as we are is a constant practice in patience, forgiveness, kindness, and love. It is in the messiness of life and through vulnerability that we learn that we are enough.
Self-compassion practice guides us to be fully with whatever arises and to lovingly care for all of it. Although simple, the practice is not easy, as it asks for gentleness, consistency, support of others, and the willingness to turn toward discomfort and vulnerability. Like Teflon which does not chemically bond to anything else but can only stick mechanically to other materials, self-compassion is not a natural inclination of our mind, but we can intentionally Velcro it into our lives through gentle, patient, and supported practice.
Presently, I’m no longer looking for specific programs or interventions to foster self-regulation, empathy, and resilience in students. Rather, my work is focused on co-creating and holding space for educators to come together in the community to cultivate connection to their selves, the present moment, their vocation and each other. I came to realize that if we as educators don’t practice compassion for ourselves, are not attuned to our own wellbeing, or do not feel a sense of belonging and worth, no program or intervention we share with our students can be shared with authenticity. The foundational and most important intervention educators can offer to the world is their embodied loving presence that rests on the gentle relationship and wholehearted connection with self.
If we attempt to act and to do things for others and for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, our own freedom, integrity and capacity to love, we will not have anything to give to others. — Thomas Merton