Cultivating Balance through Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
By Cheryl Shah, guest contributor
As a corporate finance leader, I got to work at 7:30 am and didn’t return home until 8 pm most nights. I was constantly under pressure to deliver financial results, error-free and with tight deadlines. I relied on my colleagues’ work, and when they made mistakes, I would react with anger and frustration. My workday was dominated by meetings until 4 pm, leaving me a scant few hours to complete work deliverables. My shoulders ached from the weight of stress. I constantly worried if I wasn’t good enough, I’d lose my job.
I struggled with insomnia and panic attacks, often waking in the middle of the night, my mind swimming. Might I miss a deadline? Had I or one of my staff made a mistake at the Board of Directors’ presentation? My home life suffered. Forget about nutritious family meals; we often ate frozen dinners or fast food. I found myself yelling at our daughters and my partner. Anger and irritability boiled inside when things did not go according to plan. We were overscheduled, with soccer and basketball practices, games, and tournaments. Even socializing with friends, for some connection and fun, could feel overwhelming. There was absolutely no downtime in my life. My life was on autopilot at 100 mph.
Stress Reduction & Self-Compassion
Eventually, I fell into a depression and realized that something had to change. For years I’d dabbled in mindfulness, based on the Mindful Based Stress Reduction curriculum by Jon Kabat Zin, and self-compassion based on the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer, but I’d allowed the practices to drop away. I decided to recommit myself to them for support during these emotionally challenging times. I started creating a routine of practicing mindfulness for thirty minutes in the quiet of my car before going to work. I would start by asking, “What do I need?” Sitting in daily silence gave me space to listen to my body. It allowed me to notice what I was feeling and then choose what my response would be. When I felt imbalanced—through aching shoulders, irritability, or sadness—I knew I needed to slow down and make different choices. I also knew I felt more energized and less sad if I exercised in the mornings. I began to get up early and attend a spin class or run for 30 minutes.
Slowly, through re-implementing, these two behavior changes in my daily life, the depression, and anxiety were more manageable. In addition, I began to interrupt the 100-mile-an-hour craziness with simple pauses throughout the day. My mantra became, “Many pauses many times a day.” When I’d feel frustration at work as a tightness in my head, throat, and chest, I would step outside and look at the sky for a few moments to calm myself. When I would be annoyed during a conversation with my manager, I focus on the soles of my feet, which grounded me so I wouldn’t react and say something I would regret. At home, if I was feeling exhausted, I would go into my room for a ten-minute break or take a few breaths, observing my body and naming an emotion I was feeling, such as “anxiety” or “sadness.” These simple pauses supported me to have more mental space in life.
My self-compassion practice gave me the courage to establish boundaries with work, family, and friends. For Instance, sometimes I would ask an employee on my team to attend a meeting and debrief me. At home, I would let my family know that after 8 pm was my downtime to read or journal. Boundary setting takes courage and discipline, which I don’t always have. The more I practice, the easier it becomes. I am still working on it.
Core Values & Awareness
Through mindfulness, I gained awareness of what was important to me. This awareness offered me a wide lens to see the big picture. From this perspective, I began to discover my core values. Core values give life meaning. They are the “why” in what I believe, are my compass in life. I knew my health and family were at the top of my core values. So how would I cultivate a life with more balance to live in accordance with these core values?
I started bringing awareness to how I was spending my time. I would take a “pause” in daily life and ask myself: Are my resources, money, time, and attention in alignment with my core values? I did not always live in accordance with my core values, but as I became more aware, that shifted. I made different choices in how I was living my life. For instance, when my daughters were in middle school, I more often chose to stay home with them on Friday and Saturday evenings instead of going to a party. Or I would resist the urge to look at my phone or social media for that dopamine hit and instead call a close friend to talk or go for a hike.
Through awareness, I began efficiency thinking. I questioned how I could complete tasks at work and home more effectively and efficiently. For instance, I examined financial processes, such as budgeting and forecasting, and created automated methods to develop reports in lieu of laborious manual Excel functions.
At home, to support good nutrition, central to my core value of being healthy, I started menu planning and meal prepping on the weekends. I included the whole family in the process, which also meant spending fun, quality time together. The girls learned the important skill of cooking, and now the responsibility for family meals was no longer mine alone. Efficiency transformed work I dreaded into joyful family bonding time.
I am certainly not saying I live in accordance with my core values all the time, but building awareness helps me to lean in that direction.
Compassion as a Professional Core Value
I often did not enjoy my corporate finance job because the stress and long hours got in the way of my personal core values of health and family. However, with awareness and self-compassion, I realized that my professional core value is having compassion to support others and to be of service. With this awareness, I started to enjoy the budgeting aspect of my career, because I supported people who were anxious about creating and complying with budgets. I also appreciated the process improvement aspect of my job because it streamlined processes, supporting our team to enhance our performance.
As I developed more self-compassion, I grew more compassionate toward others. I was not so reactive to co-workers or my team when they made a mistake or work did not go according to plan. I still addressed important issues and engaged in difficult conversations, but in a kinder more caring way. This taught me to be more vulnerable in my professional life, making me a more humane manager.
Eventually, I started teaching mindfulness and self-compassion in the evenings and weekends, another opportunity to be of service. As more opportunities for facilitating mindfulness programs within corporations came to me, I found the courage to leave my finance career and start a business to help organizations change their relationship to stress, find balance and increase focus to drive results. I also focus on helping employees and leaders attend to themselves and others with compassion.
A Life of Joy & Ease
Awareness, self-kindness, and living in accordance with my core values gave me the power to choose what was right for me. They helped me cultivate a life of more joy and ease. Of course, I’m not perfect, and I’m learning as I go. This means I make mistakes. However, I try to embrace mistakes and use them as a learning opportunities for growth. I still have ruminations and catastrophizing thoughts of not being good enough, such as how am I going to manage a business? However, now I emerge from the swimming thoughts into the peaceful moment more quickly and with kindness for myself. I have learned to savor and appreciate this balanced life I have created.
Cheryl is an instructor for our MBSR 8-Week Course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.