Please fit your oxygen mask before helping others



The idea of compassion or kindness in doing a PhD may seem odd. We are all driven by our passion to learn, to succeed and ultimately, to graduate! Success, hard work and kindness may not seem likely office mates.

Our modern, Western culture is about being seen to be resilient and at times, tough. Toughness with those around us, and of course, with ourselves. We’re forever talking and thinking about meeting our KPIs and deadlines, helped along by the incentivised pay (or in academia, publication) systems we’ve signed up to.

Although some stress can be very motivating, there’s growing evidence that chronic stress is taking its toll. According to Comcare, ‘mental stress’ accounts for one third of worker’s compensation payouts across Australia, and payouts currently average $250,000 per recipient. It is estimated that stress-related absence at work is costing Australian employers about $30 billion per year. That’s almost 2% of Australia’s current GDP!

Something needs to change.

The typical response to stress in our lives is ‘flight or fight’. It worked wonders on the African plains, but not so well when the stressor is inside your head. The common workplace story is slugging your guts out at work by day (fighting) and then drowning it all at the pub or at home by night (fleeing).

Self-compassion presents an alternative. Rather than trying to fight or flee from stressful periods in our life (and the thoughts and feelings that go with them), self-compassion involves embracing our difficulties and being kind to ourselves in the face of them.

In a PhD context, self-compassion could involve:

  • Accepting whatever pressure we’re under and the unpleasant feelings and thoughts that come with it;
  • Putting our stress into perspective (ie, acknowledging that stress and pressure are a part of work and living, and that the current issue is not – and need not – be the end of the world); and
  • Moving forward with an attitude of openness and kindness to our circumstances and to ourselves.

In essence self-compassion means fully embracing our circumstances (and our own thoughts and feelings), and viewing them in a kind way.

Although it may sound fluffy, it turns out to be a pretty powerful tool when faced with stress. Researchers have found that people with high levels of self-compassion experience less anxiety, stress, depression and shame; and more life satisfaction, happiness, gratitude and optimism.

But does that make self-compassionate people less focused on doing well?

You might expect that self-compassionate people lose their ‘edge’ and their drive to succeed. Not so, says the research. The opposite is actually true: People with high levels of self-compassion take more of a learning approach to their challenges, take greater responsibility and are more accountable for their choices than those low in self-compassion.

Why? Because a stressful deadline presents a HUGE threat to someone who stakes their whole identity on it. Taking responsibility and ‘owning’ one’s performances is also a big threat if you’re tough on yourself. You’ve got much more to lose. Being self-compassionate ‘frees up’ critical mental and emotional energy that can be used to actually solve the problem at hand (rather than just stressing about it). And if you fail, it’s not the end of the world. So you’ll be more likely to stand up and take responsibility.

Lastly, and perhaps most interesting of all, people with self-compassion are much better placed to look after the needs of others. Research has found that individuals high in self-compassion who perform high-stress caring roles (such as looking after young children) are much less likely to suffer from burn-out.

So the next time you’re faced with a stressful PhD deadline, notice your response. Do you go with fight and flight? Or are you able to make room for a more compassionate response – to those around you and ultimately, to yourself?

Author Bio:James Donald is a PhD student in Organisational Behaviour at the ANU. His research explores the impacts of mindfulness on stress and resilience in the workplace.