Please fit your oxygen mask before helping others

This post is by James Donald, a PhD student in Organisational Behaviour at the ANU. His research explores the impacts of mindfulness on stress and resilience in the workplace. James is an experienced facilitator and mindfulness trainer, and regularly leads mindfulness and well-being workshops in the community, public and private sectors. His training company is Mindfulness Works.

Last time we heard from James on the Whisperer he wrote about How to survive a mid PhD crisis.This post is about self compassion and how it can help with your PhD.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 3.04.14 pmThe 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?

Thanks James! I certainly feel a bit better now – what about you? Is self compassion something you could embrace? What might stop you from being able to feel compassion for yourself?

Related posts

Feeding the crazy

How to survive a mid PhD crisis

14 thoughts on “Please fit your oxygen mask before helping others

  1. MJJ says:

    Reblogged this on Going Medieval and commented:
    This post by James Donald from The Thesis Whisperer’s blog is also pretty relevant for ECRs, I think. In our case, though, the oxygen mask analogy can work in terms of getting your own career path on track before you over-assist others with theirs. We all need a ‘circle of niceness’ and mutual support – but we are equally all applying for the same pool of jobs. Unless the assistance is quid pro quo, it’s not fair to put additional pressure on yourself by helping people out at the expense of your own deadlines and wellbeing. Issues surrounding doing things for free crop up here too: on the one hand, we need the experience, on the other there’s the problem of being seen as The Go-To Person who does things for free as a matter of course. I’m not saying we shouldn’t help each other out – I’m more than happy to help with queries, references, the odd read-through and edit etc for folks I know would do the same for me or who are just starting out on their PhD journey. I just wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t manage my workload around it, or if I suspected I would be left out of acknowledgements (rude, but I know it’s happened to some) or turned down for a similar favour for no real reason. Fortunately, so far, none of these things have happened to me (you guys are alright) but I’m aware others haven’t been so lucky!

    That’s why the ‘circle of niceness’ is so important in the first place, but it has to be a circle of mutual respect too. Not just for one another’s work, but for one another’s right to say ‘no’ to additional work or professional favours with no hard feelings. Respect for ourselves is also key, or else how will you know when to say ‘no’?

    Practice self-compassion, argues James Donald, and compassion for others will come easier, and less likely to contribute to burn out and stress.

    As part of my own journey, I’m determined to be a #HealthyAcademic (physically and mentally), and this post helped a lot.

  2. Megan Evans says:

    Hi James, this is a great post and very timely – a friend and I have been reading about self-compassion recently. I’m interested in some of the research you refer to, particularly:
    “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.”
    Can you recommend a paper or two that I can look up on this topic?

  3. James Donald (@MindfulnesWorks) says:

    Hi Megan,

    Am really glad to hear you found the post timely. So did I, actually! It’s such a slippery skill. It’s as if the moment you ‘relax’, those harsh, judgemental thoughts rush right back in. What I’m learning is being self-compassionate about the fact that I’m often not self-compassionate 🙂

    Kristin Neff pioneered research into the construct of self-compassion. There are quite a few studies now supporting the findings I quoted in the post, and Kristin’s website has a pretty extensive list:

    All the best,


  4. Crystal Harris, Phd says:

    Such a great reminder. As one who had TWO mid-Dissertation crises, I was able to push through only by surrounding myself with love and support.
    I am definitely sharing with my grad students. #selfcare is the key!

  5. Wendy Reynolds says:

    I’m exploring the effect of Yoga ‘off the mat’ in my PhD, and in my first 6-months I’ve constantly had to remind myself to practice what I preach and use my Yoga tools to support myself on the research journey! Self compassion is a biggie …. great article 😉

  6. Zoe says:

    I’m late to this, but thanks for an interesting article! I recently completed a mindfulness meditation course run by the wellbeing and counselling department at my university. It was specifically for postgrad students, and it helped so much with my concentration levels, productivity (especially writing) and general anxieties about juggling work and life. I’d recommend this to other PhD students.

  7. H says:

    Wow, this is such a great article and so empowering for my thesis paper right now. This just made me feel more calm and confident about tackling this challenge! Thank you!

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