November 1, 2021

Mindfulness instructors share how Mindful Self-Compassion has influenced their lives

Mindfulness instructors Bob Gillespie and Emily Hagenmaier discuss the impact of self-compassion on their lives and why they are bringing Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teachings to UW Health.

Emily's perspective

Bob: You work full-time and are a mother of three school-age children. How does self-compassion influence your parenting and your juggling of all your responsibilities? How does self-compassion affect your family relationships?

Emily: I can’t imagine surviving parenting, especially this past year and a half, without self-compassion. Last night, my kiddo was having a rough time falling asleep. It was 10 p.m., way past the time I turn into a pumpkin. I was lying on my child’s floor, feeling the frustration and fear of what this means for tomorrow ... and then I started using a MSC practice called “Giving and Receiving Compassion.” It’s a simple breath practice in which you breathe in care for yourself and exhale care for another. Like the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchanged between a house plant and a human – the practice becomes about interconnected kindness. My kiddo was asleep in 2 minutes. I’m not saying MSC is the way to get our kids to fall asleep. But it sure did help me take care of myself in a moment of parenting so that I could show up for my child.

Bob: As a trauma therapist, how do you see the role of self-compassion in healing?

Emily: Oh, I love this question. Self-compassion contains both a yin component, a nurturing warm presence, as well as a yang component, a fierce justice that declares "no" or empowers boundaries. We can think of trauma as a violation of boundaries. Healing from trauma requires mobilization of protection to restore safety and life energy. Self-compassion implies skillful, intentional action and gives agency to slow down reactivity and allow for healing.

Bob: As a knitter and arts and crafts fan, how does self-compassion influence creativity and play?

Emily: Thank you for inviting me to talk about how much I love yarn and funky crafts. For me, making time for creativity and play, allowing my hands to tinker, allows me space free from caregiving obligations or doing mode. Creativity is a core value in my life and self-compassion supports carving out space and putting energy into what gives us meaning in our lives.

Bob: You were a classically trained ballet dancer who worked under very intense scrutiny of your body and your performance. You also work with women around perinatal and postpartum challenges. How has self-compassion affected how you feel about your body and the societal pressure on women to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty?

Emily: My experiences growing up in the dance world showed me the antithesis of self-compassion. The culture can be very shaming, manipulative and white dominant. As much as I love moving my body in space, the joy can get lost in the oppressive culture and beauty standards. For me, becoming a parent has transformed my relationship to my body and to bodies in general. My body is certainly different than when I was dancing – everything has expanded and softened – including my heart. My body grew and nurtured three kids. It’s remarkable. The soothing touch practices in MSC in which we may hold a hand to our heart center or soft belly make me appreciate my wobbly bits. They feel good to touch!

Bob's perspective

Emily: What is a practice from MSC that sustains you in your personal life?

Bob: I have really benefitted from an ongoing practice of the Self-Compassion Break (mp3). That’s a brief practice you can do on the spot whenever you notice that you’re suffering. Earlier this week, I felt misunderstood following a meeting at work and was having one of those unproductive conversations inside my head about how I was wronged. I was able to interrupt the rumination on the spot and practice the three stages of the Self-Compassion Break:

  • I acknowledged to myself that I felt misunderstood (mindfulness of the stress)

  • I recalled that many people feel misunderstood every day and that I’m not alone (common humanity)

  • And then I offered some understanding to myself in the moment (self-kindness).

It helped me pause and not overreact in an unskillful way and then helped me pivot to being more present for my family after work. Through the practice, I also realized that my co-worker probably felt misunderstood, too. When I saw my co-worker the next day, I was genuinely happy to see her and we had a nice connection. That’s a shift for this guy who has historically held on to pain at the cost of my own happiness.

Emily: You have taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at UW Health for many years. How do you find MSC differs from MBSR or complements MBSR?

Bob: MBSR is an amazing program and I’ve witnessed truly incredible transformations in MBSR participants over the past 15 years. I’ll continue teaching MBSR along with MSC, because they complement each other so well.

In MBSR, our focus is paying attention to our present experience as it unfolds. In MSC, we shift the emphasis to offering caring attention to the experiencer (ourselves), on the spot and in the moment when suffering is present. I think learning to offer ourselves self-compassion increases our capacity to be with the ups and downs of any moment in our lives – which is what mindfulness is all about.

MBSR is one powerful doorway into mindfulness practice, and I think MSC is another way in. Some people new to mindfulness could benefit from MSC because of its practical focus of responding to difficulties in a caring way. MSC can also help MBSR graduates and other experienced meditators warm up their awareness, work with difficult emotions and old painful patterns in skillful ways and perhaps enjoy their meditation practice more.

Emily: How does MSC intersect with or support traditional mindfulness practices?

Bob: Just like traditional mindfulness practices, MSC is based on developing awareness of present experience with equanimity. MSC does not require a particular set of beliefs, but has the same goal as traditional practices: To develop compassion toward the suffering in the world and to skillfully respond to that suffering with wisdom. I think MSC can be particularly helpful for the modern person, because it recognizes that accepting ourselves as we are is really challenging in this overstimulating world where we are constantly bombarded by messages of how we could improve ourselves. The point of MSC is not to become a great meditator, but to better respond to our own suffering with care. That’s incredibly practical. And MSC has verbal and written exercises and informal practices, too, so that we can integrating mindfulness teachings in multiple ways that resonate with a diversity of learning styles.

Emily: What led you to want to bring MSC to the UW Health community?

Bob: Who among us does not struggle with self-doubt, self-criticism and some fear of inadequacy? As a psychotherapist in clinical practice, I know how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has been on our general morale. I wanted to directly respond to the suffering that I see around me, and I see an opportunity with self-compassion. We know from the growing mountain of research studies that self-compassion is a better indicator of well-being than self-esteem. With self-compassion, we don’t always have to be doing well or standing out in the pack – unlike self-esteem. If we feel less pressure to be good enough compared to others, there’s this deep potential for increased well-being and improved functioning through the development of self-compassion. And the research validates this: Self-compassion is associated with increases in motivation, healthy behaviors, immune functioning, positive body image and resilience.