Welcome to my third column as part of the Real Talks with SOSAD Ireland well-being series.

Each week I will outline a different mental skill that can help you to live a happier, healthier, and more successful life. I explain why mental skills are important, and how you can develop them through strategic and consistent practice.

Having already discussed self-awareness and resilience in previous weeks, it’s time to explore self-compassion. 

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is the act of being kind and non-judgemental to yourself when experiencing failure or hardship. Self-compassion is a mental skill that can help to improve your resilience, perspective and joy. It can also lead to lower levels of stress, anxiety and fear of failure. 

Through my work as a performance and well-being coach, I regularly see leaders be supportive and compassionate to others. However, I also see many of those same leaders be extremely harsh and negative towards themselves when experiencing failure. Self-compassion helps us look in the mirror to learn from our mistakes free of judgement rather than to criticise or shame ourselves. Many of the best leaders in the world learn that the path to courage and inspiration often requires vulnerability and reflection. 

Due to the absence of self-compassion in my twenties, my self-talk was often negative, undermining, and at times even toxic - especially during spells of depression. For years, I bottled up emotions, thoughts and feelings. I hid my vulnerabilities behind a mask because I didn’t want to appear weak.

Through my work with a counsellor, one of the most powerful acts of self-compassion that I learned to do was to give myself permission to cry. 

“Alan, don’t be surprised if you get an urge to cry at some stage. How the body often heals after going through experiences like you have is through crying. As your depression lifts, your body will need to offload emotions that it has been carrying for a long time,” said my therapist. 

As a young man with a sporting background, I left his office half-laughing at the notion of breaking down in tears. As I lay in bed that night, I played back our conversations in my head. I saw the jar he had drawn with his finger in the sandpit beside the desk. I could see the first line he traced towards the bottom of the jar – the point where a person’s normal level of emotion was meant to be. Then I spotted a second line, my level a few inches above it, worryingly close to the brim. That image really helped me to understand how thoughts and feelings were festering within me because I was afraid to be vulnerable or open up to others. 

Then a tear broke through and trickled down my neck. That single drop was soon followed by another, which lingered somewhere between my lip and ear. The sensation as they touched my skin was unnatural. I felt like I wanted to cry. I knew I needed to. But for some reason, I couldn’t continue. Was it all in my head? If the tears weren’t coming, then maybe I just thought I was depressed. That negative and harsh critic within me took over once more. 

When my eyes filled up again, I rolled onto my side and curled up into the foetal position. I pulled a pillow out from underneath my head and drew it close to my chest. At that moment, I felt the jar that my counsellor drew in the sandpit shatter in my gut. Tears started flowing out of my eyes and rolled down my face like raindrops on a windowpane. 

Now whenever the urge to cry kicks in or tears present themselves at the back of my eyes, I view it as one of those big flashing signs on the side of the motorway urging me to ‘slow down’. It is a chance to ask myself what is going on and to connect with my thoughts and feelings. It is an opportunity to be self-aware, resilient and self-compassionate. To be kind and non-judgemental to myself.

Developing self-compassion

We all make mistakes and experience challenging times, so it is important to be kind to ourselves when dealing with adversity. Mental skills like self-compassion can be improved through practice. Think of a time you failed recently and how you spoke to yourself. Now think about how you would respond to a friend who had failed in the exact same way? Many of us find it easier to be kinder to others than we do to ourselves. When experiencing failure or hardship, try to speak to yourself as you would to a friend. This will help you improve your self-compassion. 

*Alan O’Mara is the founder of Real Talks, a former Cavan GAA player, an author, and a performance and wellbeing coach with sports and business leaders around the world. This column is part of the Real Talks with SOSAD Ireland well-being series. Check out SOSADIreland.ie to learn more.