Guest post by Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness teacher Alissa Keaton, LPC, CMT-200
Fall is quickly approaching and while we like to think this means cozy sweaters and everything pumpkin spice, it also means back to school season. That time of year when parents simultaneously breathe a huge sigh of relief and begin to panic. There is something soothing and familiar for a lot of us about the return of school in the fall, even though studies show parents (especially mothers) are busier, get less sleep, and have less time for themselves when school is in session. Fortunately, we can learn how to resource ourselves with self-compassion so we can face this challenging season with balance and wisdom.
Mental load, also called cognitive labor, refers to the “invisible, non-tangible tasks involved in running a household”. Back-to-school mental load can include things like knowing when and how to complete school enrollment, gathering of documentation the school may need, awareness of when vaccinations are needed, purchasing school supplies and clothing, and the planning that goes into making all these things happen.
I find in the weeks leading up to the start of school, I often feel like there is just not enough time to get everything done. It’s a little better now that my kids are older, but my mind still feels like it is constantly buzzing with the additional mental load and tasks associated with this time of year. It feels overwhelming and every year I find myself feeling worried that I will not be able to get it all done.
In her book, Fierce Self Compassion: How Woman can Harness Kindness to Speak up, Claim their Power, and Thrive, psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristen Neff describes the effects mental load has on women. She writes,
“Women do the majority of household work, childcare, and eldercare even in marriages where both partners work full-time. This extra burden leads to increased stress and tension. Research shows that women are more likely than men to be strained by continually sacrificing our own needs to the demands of family, friends, and partners” (pp. 171-172).
She goes on to state that “Women not only had less time for themselves, but they also benefited less from the little they did have. The researchers attributed this to the fact that during their free time, women were still worrying about family issues, so that the leisure time available to them wasn’t as refreshing or fulfilling” (p. 172).
So what does any of this have to do with mindfulness you might ask? There is a Zen saying that encourages us to sit in mindfulness practice for at least 20 minutes a day, unless we are too busy and then we should sit for an hour. That can feel like an impossible task when our lives are especially hectic and we find ourselves wondering if we can accomplish everything we need to do. Many of us have been conditioned to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs, so the idea of taking 20 minutes or an hour does not seem realistic. But it is also unrealistic to believe we must always make the needs of our children, jobs, family, and even the school take priority over caring for ourselves.
In my personal experience, I have learned that when I do not make my own needs a priority, I find I become less productive, more likely to make mistakes, and I feel more irritable. I become stressed and exhausted. Making time for even a few minutes of mindfulness daily (or several times a day) helps me decrease feelings of stress and overwhelm. When I do become overwhelmed, my mindfulness practice helps me to relax, recenter, and cope more effectively with my never ending to-do list. It also helps me identify my priorities and decide when to set boundaries.
Fierce and Tender Self-Compassion
Dr. Neff encourages us to identify what we need. Sometimes what we need is something firm and resolute, and other times we may need things that bring comfort or a sense of calmness. She refers to these differing ways of meeting our needs as fierce and tender self-compassion.
Neff describes tender self-compassion as entailing “comforting ourselves, reassuring ourselves that we aren’t alone, and being present with our pain” (p. 33). Practices that facilitate comfort, soothing, gentleness, and calmness embody this idea of tender self-compassion.
Fierce self-compassion is more forceful and is defined by Neff, as “protecting, providing for, and motivating ourselves”. This type of self-compassion can include creating boundaries, opposing injustice, making our own needs a priority, finding motivation, and actively working towards change. Maybe fierce self-compassion looks like becoming involved in making our schools safer and more equitable for all children. Or maybe it means learning to say no to certain school related activities in order to make our own needs a priority. I promise the school fundraiser will do just fine without you.
Cup of Tea
Some of my go-to tender self-compassion practices are sense and savor practices. These are practices in which we take time to notice the pleasure that arises from sensory experiences. One I particularly enjoy this time of year is drinking a simple cup of tea. I start by taking a few deep breaths and then mindfully picking and brewing an herbal tea. Once it is ready, I allow myself the time to engage all of my senses and really savor the tea. I’ll spend a couple minutes smelling it and feeling the warmth of the cup in my hand. I may notice the color of the tea, or I might swish the cup and watch as the liquid swirls around. When I finally take a sip, I allow myself to really notice the taste and temperature on my tongue.
Another short practice that I find comforting and easy to incorporate into my daily routine is a mindful gratitude journal that I’ve been doing for several years. Gratitude practices can help increase feelings of self-compassion because they encourage us to consider things we appreciate about ourself and others.
The GLAD technique from the Corvallis Clinic is one way I structure my gratitude journal and practices. GLAD helps me to focus on the positives in my life, like acknowledging my accomplishments instead of only focusing on all the tasks still needing to be done. It also only takes about 5-10 minutes each night, which is something I find easy to fit into my busy schedule.
- I start by taking a few deep breaths to center myself, then I name one thing I am grateful for. I like to challenge myself to find something specific from today.
- Then I reflect on one thing I learned. I remind myself that I do not need to learn advanced physics. Sometimes I might learn something important about myself or other people and sometimes maybe I just learn a new knock knock joke.*
- The next step is to identify at least one thing I have accomplished that day. Again, it’s about allowing myself to recognize and appreciate what I have done without overly focusing on what did not get done.
- The final step is to name one thing I felt delighted by today. This links back to my enjoyment of sense and savor practices because it encourages me to pay attention to the little moments I enjoy throughout the day; a pretty sunset, leaves changing color, or snuggling with my cats.
Something I often struggle with is procrastination. It seems counter-intuitive, but I am more likely to procrastinate when I have an especially long to-list. Neff sums up my experience when she writes, “procrastinators often judge themselves and feel incapable of achieving their goals, which just leads to more worry and delay. It can be an endless loop that’s extremely difficult to escape” (p. 211).
Neff suggests when we are feeling judgmental towards ourselves, we need to seek a balance of fierce and tender self-compassion in order to break the procrastination cycle. One fierce self-compassion practice that I have found particularly helpful with this is Kristen Neff’s Motivating Self-Compassion practice. This is a version of the self-compassion break designed to develop encouraging, wise vision when a change is needed.
I will admit that fierce self-compassion is a newer concept for me, so I do not have the same level of familiarity with a lot of the more tender practices. I have been practicing sense and savor mindfulness and keeping my GLAD journal for several years. Learning fierce self-compassion practices has required me to embrace a beginner’s mind.
This time of year can be hectic for people with children. So much extra needs to be done that it can feel overwhelming to even decide where to start. But if we can find a balance between fierce and tender self-compassion, we can learn to prioritize our own needs. We can find comfort in savoring cups of tea on cool fall nights because we have been fierce in setting boundaries and carving out space for ourselves. And all of this is good practice since the stress of the holiday season is just around the corner.
*I cannot in good faith mention knock knock jokes and then not share one with you!
Rhino all the best jokes.