Cultivating compassionate hearts and minds

Being the month that is in it, what better topic to welcome Spring with but self-compassion!  Self-compassion is a concept that I return to again and again, for both personal and professional reasons.  It is defined by Kristin Neff in a number of ways, for example, “simply compassion directed inwards, relating to ourselves as the object of care and concern when faced with the experience of suffering”.  Evidence is accumulating on the benefits of compassion-based interventions for positive physical and mental health. In my experience I find that self-compassion, both in theory and practice, transforms something fundamental in the way we view ourselves, as well as supporting us in making gentle changes in our behaviours and attitudes.  

I would guess that many of us did not develop self-compassion skills in our youth or learn how to respond to difficult situations or emotions effectively. Growing up without the tools, we do the best we can, often finding our own ways of coping, but in adulthood we can eventually discover that our ways are not working effectively. This could explain our propensity to look outside of ourselves for comfort by seeking out distractions, sometimes as a means of escaping painful or uncomfortable emotions. Distractions can include over-indulgence in television or social media, food or drink, shopping, work, the list goes on. These distractions may provide short-term relief but what about the next challenging event or difficult emotion?  

It is fortunate then, that mindfulness and self-compassion are life-skills that can be learned over time. These relational skills can help us to feel our feelings fully and also to manage painful feelings in a more sustainable manner.  We can potentially move through life with more ease and less need for distraction, in other words building our own resilience.  

When I teach compassion-based mindfulness, I regularly have the privilege of witnessing people transform the way in which they relate to themselves. Their new mindfulness and self-compassion skills often supporting them to make subtle, or even profound life changes, leading ultimately to happier lives.   In my work over the last number of years I have really become interested in the simple but sustained nature of these changes. They appear to last. 

Studies show that self-compassion and compassion for others go hand-in-hand.  Therefore, directing compassion and kindness towards ourselves is not at the expense of others. On the contrary, evidence suggests that being kind to ourselves actually enhances our sense of connection to others.  Recent research has even linked self-compassion to oxytocin, the so-called ‘happy hormone’, which has a calming effect on the mind and body. It seems clear then that developing a sense of kindness and care towards ourselves, as well as others, has hugely positive benefits for our health and wellbeing.

The following is an excerpt from ‘Love after Love” by Derek Walcott:

“Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life”.

Now take a few moments to reflect on your own relationship with yourself. What emotions come to your mind when you think about yourself? What kind of attitude do you have towards yourself? Is it kind or caring? Is this something you ever take time to reflect upon? Maybe the time is now.

For more information on any of the following contact Susan on 087 2700572 or email:

• A new Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC) is starting in Clonakilty on Tuesday, February 18. This is suitable for beginners or people who wish to deepen their practice. Please get in touch for more details or to book a place.

• A Spring workshop focusing on mindfulness and self-compassion, often described as the ‘two wings of a bird’ will run on Sunday, February 16 in Skibbereen from 10.30 – 1pm. Booking essential. €30

• Tuesday drop-in Sessions will return on February 18 in Skibbereen at the later time of 10 – 11am €10 at Market St Clinic.

Susan O Regan

Susan O'Regan teaches mindfulness and self-compassion courses and workshops in West Cork.

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