Chapter 7: Being A Compassionate Teacher (Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. Translations of the Professional Guide are forthcoming throughout 2020 and 2021. May this Professional Guide serve you and inform your teaching!

Note that CMSC makes a modest affiliate commission if you purchase the book through a link on this page.


Embracing Diversity 

Our capacity as MSC teachers to respond to others with compassion is limited by our capacity to see our common humanity and our ability to understand the context of people’s lives. There are human differences that we may be able to see (e.g., age, skin color, and body type) and differences that might be less visible (e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, early childhood experience, mental or physical illness, religion, politics, literacy, and intellectual abilities) (see Chapter 10). Members of some marginalized groups, such as people of color, and even people in groups that are not a minority, such as women, experience ongoing, systemic oppression. 

Our differences can be a source of pride, shame, or a host of other emotions, depending largely on cultural factors, such as how much oppression we experience as our identity develops and how much that oppression is internalized. It is also important to remember that some marginalized individuals have been able to develop strength and resilience in the face of cultural oppression and adversity, such as Susan B. Anthony or Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. (Burt, Lei, & Simons, 2017; Singh, Hays, & Watson, 2011; Spence, Wells, Graham, & George, 2016). 

Whatever form oppression takes, the result is cultural identity pain. As MSC teachers, we need to be aware and open to our students’ cultural identity pain and be ready to validate it and respond with compassion. Creating a space in an MSC class that supports inclusion, diversity, and equity may be a new competency for some MSC teachers, especially for teachers who identify with the dominant culture or have social privilege of one kind or another. Suffering is universal, but not all suffering is equal. Although MSC is ultimately an exercise in common humanity, we get there by validating the uniqueness of each person’s experience, especially the experience of pain. Cultural identity pain is a sensitive topic that can evoke feelings of shame, guilt, or anger in just about everyone. Fortunately, self-compassion is a powerful resource for working with such feelings. 

When participants arrive at an MSC class for the first time, they often ask themselves, “What is here for me?” as they look around the room for people like themselves. When none are to be found, students at least need to know that the group norms include genuine respect for individual differences and appreciation of the impact of culture on a person’s life. Most importantly, the MSC classroom should not be a place where the pain caused by oppression on a personal and systemic level is ignored in an effort to see our common humanity. 

MSC teachers are strongly encouraged to develop greater awareness and sensitivity toward the worldviews of those who are culturally diverse. Gaining this type of understanding helps us to view participants’ cultural identities as representations of various dimensions and degrees of the self in relation to social disadvantage and/or social privilege. Therefore, we must always be sensitive to the impact of multiple, interacting cultural identities rather than perceiving participants’ diverse ways of being as purely one-dimensional. In other words, there is always “diversity within diversity.” 

Toward that end, teachers may need to take additional training in cultural self-awareness to recognize their own cultural conditioning, uncover unconscious biases, and more closely examine how they are situated in the culture regarding access to power and privilege. This process supports the cultivation of cultural humility, which means acknowledging our limitations, learning to explore social differences despite our discomfort, and remaining open to the reality that cultural identity pain has a profound impact on one’s sense of self and lived experience. 

MSC teachers from relatively homogeneous cultures may feel that diversity, equity, and inclusion are less applicable to their teaching, but there are marginalized groups that exist within every culture. Expanding our sensitivity to the impact of culture in our lives, especially the impact on those who are subject to daily injury within a particular culture, is an important gateway to living and teaching more compassionately. 

Qualities of Compassion 

When a teacher is being compassionate toward a student, a host of related qualities may arise in the interaction: 

  • Curiosity—genuine interest in what a student is experiencing. 
  • Kindness—a hospitable, non-judging attitude.
  • Warmth—a tender inclination of heart toward the individual. 
  • Respect—appreciating the uniqueness of each individual. 
  • Allowing—not fixing and allowing each person to be whole and complete now. 
  • Humility—assuming that one person doesn’t know what is best for another. 
  • Mutuality—sense of commonality with others in struggles and aspirations. 
  • Confidentiality—willingness to protect the privacy of others. 
  • Receptivity—ability to listen and learn from others. 
  • Flexibility—capacity to be moved in a new direction by the student. 
  • Authenticity—readiness to be open and honest in a helpful way. 
  • Appreciation—recognizing the inherent strengths in each individual. 
  • Attentiveness—ability to focus on the experience of another. 
  • Generosity—willingness to go beyond one’s usual limitations. 
  • Empathy—feeling another’s world as one’s own. 
  • Equanimity—perspective and steadiness in the midst of strong emotions. 
  • Wisdom—understanding complexity and seeing a way through. 
  • Confidence—inner strength that arises from goodwill. 

Teachers who want to increase their capacity for compassion toward others can focus on enhancing any of these compassion-related qualities. For example, intentionally cultivating the quality of “not fixing” might be helpful for psychotherapists who have a habit of trying to fix what’s broken. Or for a self-compassion teacher who tends to be a striving and impatient type (commonly called “Type A”), the qualities of mutuality and receptivity might be worth nourishing. By focusing on one personal quality at a time, MSC teachers can widen the spectrum of their compassionate attributes and skills. 

Teachers need wisdom to temper how they express these qualities of compassion. For example, if a teacher speaks in a warm, motherly tone, one student might enjoy the soothing effect, whereas another may have memories of maternal disapproval or betrayal and feel uneasy. What is medicine for one student could be poison for another. Similarly, one student may need teachers to maintain respectful distance so the student can freely explore his inner world, whereas another might experience the same distance as isolating and lonely. As we grow as MSC teachers, we are likely to recognize our own teaching styles and be able to adjust our favored style to the needs of individual students, or at least to recognize the effect our manner of teaching might have on our students. It also helps to have a co-teacher with a different temperament or teaching style. 

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