Last night I was at a local sitting group and the topic of Christmas came up in the sharing. I suppose this was inevitable as, even for the many who don’t celebrate it, its presence looms large in advertising, TV and much of the wider culture at this time of year. What struck me forcibly last night was how, even in that one small room, everybody expressed such different responses to it all, depending on their own circumstances, past associations, family, faith, attitude etc.

Of course this should not have been surprising, but it was lovely to openly share this difference within an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance. For some, Christmas simply meant holiday and time off work, for others it meant time with family or friends, others noticed a feeling of aversion and a desire to withdraw, for some it is a reminder of loneliness or bereavement, for others it is a positive time of family, food and sharing. For many, as in most things in life, it was mixed; the difficult and the pleasant will always co-exist, whatever time of year it is.

There was also a shared acknowledgement of discomfort about the disparity between us in that warm room and those nearby living in shelters or on the streets, or perhaps faced with a choice between paying for heating or food. These are huge topics but it was lovely to notice a common concern and a desire within each of us to find a balance between generosity and looking after ourselves. I believe that to be able to really give to others without burnout, self-care and self-compassion are essential. I have certainly found this even within my own family. It is useful to remember this when, for example, one of my teenage children rolls their eyes at me, or totally ignores some reasonable request, just before demanding that I drive them somewhere – right now! This is when a few mindful breaths, a warm hand on my heart and some kind words to myself really help.

Something that has also helped me recently is a greater understanding that self-compassion is also good for those around me. I was struck by this recently when looking at research on mindful parenting. Two studies I read demonstrated a link between self-compassion in parents and a more positive outcome  for their children in terms of their levels of anxiety and depression. In fact of all the factors related to mindfulness that they measured in these studies, this was the only one that showed an impact. So self-compassion in parents promoted more positive mental health in their children. Admittedly these studies were small scale and not at all irrefutable, but they made me think.

I believe that embodying mindfulness has the most impact in terms of teaching it to others. It therefore makes sense to me that the best way to help those we love be with themselves when they are suffering is to be with our own suffering, large or small, with kindness and self-compassion. I hope that we can all remember through the highs and lows of Christmas that self-compassion is not only wise and important for ourselves, but it also helps those around us. It will also increase our ability to really take in and appreciate all the good and beauty that will be there too. Happy holidays everyone! 

By Sophie Matthew