In the next article of our series ‘Mastering leadership through collaboration’ we partner with Elaina Mullery, health leader and podcast owner of ‘the Happy Nurse’ whose goals is to help nurses live full and happy lives. In this piece we explore how best we as leaders can look after ourselves in these physically, mentally and emotionally taxing times. Emma is an ADON at Queensland Health and Tracy is a Nurse Unit Manager and this pair combined have over 30 years of experience in health with more than 20 of leadership experience.

When we think about compassion, what springs to mind? Mother Teresa? Nelson Mandela? Jacinda Ardern? What these people have in common is a great level of compassion for those around them. But there is another equally important type of compassion that is often overlooked. Self-compassion. Elaina’s podcast is focussed on wellbeing, compassion and leadership so we wanted to collaborate on this crucial topic.

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When we apply compassion to ourselves, it can feel uncomfortable. Perhaps even selfish. We keep thinking that when we choose ourselves, we are not choosing our (children/ job/ family) – this is a mistake. Have you heard the saying ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup?’ it is said so much that it’s becoming a clich. Though we know this on an intellectual level, it can be hard to translate it into actions that our physical and emotional selves can accept. Living with compassion to ourselves is a challenge. In this article we ask you to reflect and make a commitment to rise to this challenge – you will thank yourself later!

Tracy– Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about self-love. I listed all the things I was doing to show love and compassion to myself- aerial yoga, journaling, getting regular massages and so forth. She argued that I had a strong case of self like – but NOT self-love. She asked me why all of the things I was doing to be compassionate to myself were activities. More things to check off of my to do list. She asked if adding things to my ‘to do’ list was stressful? I will admit it is. 

But what are my options? How can I show myself compassion without doing anything? She said self-love might look like NOT adding things to my to do list. Having an early night so I get more sleep. Noticing damaging thoughts and spending time exploring my feelings and finding alternative ways of perceiving things. I used to joke that my self-compassion was cheese. But cheese is not self-compassion, it is food and it is passive and an easy fix. Where I am now in my journey of self-compassion is recognising that cheese and adding things to my to do list is not filling my cup so I can pour, and finding ways to replace the busyness in my life with stillness. Self-compassion can be in activity, but the stillness is where I struggle. And where I am focussing right now.

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Emma- Like Tracy I struggle with busyness. I am a do-er and an achiever and a lot of my self-identity is caught up in what I have achieved rather than who I am. Perhaps this is a struggle as who you are is harder to see that what you have achieved. Brené Brown talks about how busyness is the new badge of honour and that for some it is like a competition. I feel like she is talking directly to me! I work two jobs, am constantly studying, have four kids and struggle constantly with ‘not doing’, I find it physically, mentally and emotionally uncomfortable to not have my time planned out.

Quiet is difficult for me. I think it is a struggle to be alone with myself, just me and my thoughts and so I take the easy option of doing. My challenge to myself is to practice mindfulness and getting more comfortable with just being, without the constant need to fix, do or act. 

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Elaina- Offer yourself the same compassion that you so freely give to others. 

Nurses and Healthcare Professionals are amazingly compassionate and empathic people, but I have found that we often neglect ourselves in the compassion department. When we neglect our own emotional needs, we are on the slippery slope to burnout

As Emma and Tracy have both shared how they enjoy doing things and keeping busy, I too was like that in the past. I especially didn’t like my own company and would have my days off jam packed with activities just so that I wasn’t alone, and if I was alone, I would always have the TV on, so I didn’t feel alone. Whilst I was running around keeping busy a pressure cooker was bubbling away inside of me with all the emotions that I had pushed down in my busyness. 

Then one morning in 2005, the lid burst off the pot. I left the house and instead of walking around the corner to work, I got in the car and started driving. I still can’t recall the decision-making process behind my actions, but I just knew I had to get away. My colleagues and fiancée were frantically trying to call me, but I had turned my phone off. I drove 130 miles that morning, then something in me changed, I pulled the car over and burst into tears. This was the moment that I realised that something had to change and what led me onto my path of recovery from burnout. 

This journey ignited a passion for personal development and has led me to where I am today, coaching my wonderful Nursing colleagues on how to prevent this happening to them. 

When we are stressed, we are operating in a constant state of fight, flight, freeze. I see it in myself and I see it with my clients. We all tend to have one state that we default to. Some will become irritable and at times aggressive, others (like me) want to run, and some just bury their heads in the sand and hope that it goes away. Recognising our own tell-tale signs is important in the prevention of burnout as it allows us to show ourselves compassion and make simple changes to improve our mental health. 

Life is a rollercoaster as they say and having the toolkit to be able to deal with stress as it arises has uncovered a compassionate resilience, I now have toward myself. 

So, what is in my toolkit? I will share a few tools with you; 

Knowing my personal boundaries. Brené Brown has found through her extensive research that the most compassionate people have the strongest boundaries. Knowing what is acceptable to us as individuals encourages us to realise our own value and know that we are enough.

Befriending the voice in my head. We all have this inner dialogue, it’s the voice we hear most throughout our lives. Sometimes it can speak to us in a manner that we would never dream of speaking to others, recognising when this is happening is the first step in befriending it.

Sleep. I need 8 hours sleep per night; I have made this a non-negotiable in my life. If it means I have to say no to a social occasion in order to achieve 8 hours sleep, I will say no.

Meditation. Being comfortable with sitting in silence with my own thoughts allows me to identify any repetitive or harmful thoughts that I may be having. When we meditate it’s not about stopping our thoughts but instead witnessing them and letting them pass. Thoughts only become things when we give them the energy to.

Meal Prep. I am a busy single Mum with a clinical role and my own business. Meal Prep prior to a run of clinical shifts ensures that I am eating well and not having the added stress of cooking after a long shift. 

We are going to wrap up this article with some more strategies for your to consider, but before we get to that I hope that this article has allowed you a few moments of ‘ME’ time and a lot more future moments that you can use to reflect and dedicate to your own strategies. All of us have struggled with giving the compassion we so freely give to others to ourselves….. have you struggled with this too? We would love to hear your feedback.

So to finish, just a few more strategies that we wanted to share on how to practice your self-compassion:

·      Notice what makes you smile. Give yourself more of this.

·      Find ways to keep things OFF your to do list (remember when you say YES to something, you are saying NO to something else)

·      Find one area of your busy life that can be simplified. DO it.

·      Share what you are practicing with someone else so that they might benefit too.

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