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Why Self-compassion is a Superpower for School Leaders

This article was first published in the November-December edition of the Independent Schools Magazine https://www.independentschoolsmagazine.co.uk

After a year like no other, when testing in schools took on a whole new PPE-clad meaning and the logistics of lunchtime required Bletchley levels of problem-solving, it was a relief to reach a new academic calendar. So now that it’s in full swing and thoughts turn already to carol service plans, there are calls on your energy and vision to re-establish a rhythm of school life that has some forward momentum. Once again, your team is looking to you for leadership and inspiration: you are ‘Anchor. Kite.’ to borrow one of Simon Armitage’s epithets – as head you are both the grounding presence and the wind that nudges new ideas into flight.


There’s a sense of wanting to move on, to bank the gains in resilience and emergency IT-upskilling and begin to imagine growth again, whether that’s with a curriculum innovation left stranded when the world ground to a Covid halt or with a staff development programme that finally looks beyond generation of grades and moderation of assessment. Whilst the weight of leadership during the pandemic has been anything but virtual, it’s good to return to the ‘irl’ experience. And on one level you’re raring to go.


So how come so many of the school leaders I speak with feel, frankly, a little flat? Maybe you’ve been wondering why the beach break you snatched in August already feels a lifetime ago or why you start even Monday’s assembly feeling tired. Just as you can’t pour a decent cuppa from an empty teapot, you can’t be the refreshing blend your school needs unless you can find ways of topping yourself up. Leading in times of crisis and challenge draws on our deepest reserves and, whilst we’ve taken strength from the ingenuity and resourcefulness of our school communities, we need to think about our own needs as leaders. And I don’t mean what you pour into a glass on Friday evening to herald the weekend.


Decades of research led by pioneers in the field including Drs Kristin Neff and Chris Germer have revealed the extraordinary benefits for leaders and their organisations of practising the skills of self-compassion; in fact, I’d go so far as to call it a superpower for heads. So if it’s not about a perfect playlist for the Saturday park run or booking time on the slopes this Christmas, what is it all about?


Ironically, self-compassion starts by acknowledging that we’re not superhuman. It starts where we find ourselves in this moment, accepting what’s good and what’s tough about it, and encourages us to ask, what do I need right now? Maybe you’re about to face a difficult conversation and you need to find a combination of patience and persuasion. Maybe you’re carrying the knowledge of personal challenges your team have chosen to share with you in confidence and you need strength to be there for their offloading. Perhaps you’re facing your leadership role with heart and head elsewhere, wondering whether an ageing parent is coping with a hospital appointment today or whether your newly fledged youngest is settling into her university course after a bumpy freshers’ week, and you need a moment to acknowledge your anxieties.


Self-compassion invites us to ‘take the perspective of a compassionate other towards ourselves’,[1] addressing the needs we have in the moment as best we can, knowing that the realities of the situation can’t be magically erased but offering comfort and reassurance that we’ll get through this, that we’ll listen and we’ll find the best words we can and go ahead with making decisions, being our ‘only human’ selves.


It quietens our inner critic, that nagging voice that undermines, picking the point in the day where we’re at a low ebb to remind us that we promised HoDs we’d refresh the review programme this year and we still haven’t got a working group together. We know from the research that our brains have a negativity bias – it’s why we obsess about the minor detail we missed out of our report to governors or take to heart the one unhelpful parent comment at Open Morning. It evolved to keep us safe, to allow us to spot threats and give us a chance of taking action to survive. It means we’re wired to be super-sensitive to the bad stuff; as Rick Hanson has it, ‘our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones’.[2] And if we don’t check our self-judging behaviour it’s all too easy for our sense of self-worth to get out of kilter.


Psychologists talk about ‘contingent self-worth’,[3] where our self-esteem is strongly tied to approval or success. Maybe our sense of our own value was built on being an academic success story or bounding up the career ladder. So what happens when someone else gets the promotion we wanted or despite a buzzy open event we don’t seem to attract the numbers we hoped for in Sixth Form? Like the mood crash after a sugar high, we feel deflated, the phrases of self-judgement quickly undermining our confidence and implying that we’ve failed. Working in a culture of targets and KPIs hardly helps.


So how does self-compassion make such a difference? It reminds us that we are all still learning (somehow although we aim to nurture a growth mindset in our students we often expect ourselves to be the finished product). Self-compassion enables us to take in the good stuff from feedback and avoid letting the slightest criticism eat away at us. Plus there’s no need to develop an unhelpfully tough skin if we recognise that we’re growing rather than being measured once and for all. There’s evidence too that practising self-compassion boosts our compassion for others: we judge less and we deal honestly and kindly with people when there are nettles to be grasped. So there’s no brushing things under the carpet either. The sense of authenticity is empowering[4].


Being kind to ourselves can feel alien at the start. But it works: practising self-kindness triggers oxytocin production, reducing anxiety levels and counteracting the unhelpful levels of cortisol that stressful situations stimulate.[5] It works because self-compassion uses love as a motivator rather than fear. And the evidence[6] suggests that, as well as giving ourselves some slack when we don’t always get it right, it makes us confident to be more ambitious, to try new things. Time to get some of those kites flying.



[1] Kristin Neff, Self Compassion, Hodder and Stoughton, 2011 [2] Rick Hanson, psychologist, senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and author of numerous books including Hardwiring Happiness, at https://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/ [3] Kristin Neff is, along with Paul Gilbert, a leading authority on research into self-compassion. Associate professor in human development at the University of Texas, her eminently readable book Self Compassion is subtitled ‘stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind’. Also check out her comprehensive website: https://self-compassion.org [4] https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/hbr.org/amp/2018/09/give-yourself-a-break-the-power-of-self-compassion [5] Kristin Neff, Self Compassion [6] Kirkpatrick, K., Neff, K. and Rude, S., An Examination of Self-Compassion in Relation to Positive Psychological Functioning and Personality Traits

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