UMKC’s Trans + Allies group put a spin on the Valentine’s Day theme of love for its first 2017 Spring Series meeting last week.
While most people think of romantic couples sharing candies and kisses, one expert on the ways of love and affection has another idea about Feb. 14: focus on loving yourself.
“We took the idea of February being the ‘love month’ and decided to turn that inwards,” said Jenny Schaafsma, a graduate student in the counseling and psychology department.
Schaafsma has focused much of her research on self-compassion. Last Monday, she shared this knowledge with the Trans + Allies group in the Student Union.
“We tend to be more compassionate to our friends who are suffering than to ourselves when we are suffering,” said Schaafsma. “It is important to be open to your own suffering and not to avoid or disconnect from it.”
For many in the group, including first time attendees Shay Jaggers and Gabriel Ewing, this topic hit close to home.
Speaking from personal experience, Ewing claimed many in the transgender community struggle with feelings of self-loathing or intense self-criticism.
“I think in the world of social media especially, it’s very easy to compare the aesthetic of someone who is further along in their transition,” said Ewing. “That’s something that I do all the time — compare myself to others. Having moments of self-compassion when you don’t look the way you want to or the way you feel inside is really important.”
Jaggers agreed that self-compassion is particularly relevant to the trans community. He believes external factors often add fuel to what is for many an already hostile internal dialogue.
“A lot of trans people are extremely hard on themselves,” said Jaggers. “That is a direct reflection of what the outside world thinks of them. If someone thinks it, they might assume they should be thinking it, too. You know, ‘Oh, maybe there is something wrong with me after all.’”
During her presentation, Schaafsma addressed misconceptions people may have regarding self-compassion.
“Treating yourself with compassion is neither self-indulgent nor self-pitying,” said Schaafsma.
Ewing compared this principle to the oxygen masks found on airplanes.
“You have to put on your own mask before you help the person next to you,” said Ewing. ”It’s not egocentric at all.”
Schaafsma led the group through self-compassion exercises, teaching mantras such as “May I learn to accept myself as I am,” “May I forgive myself” and “May I be strong and safe.” The group also discussed ways to shift thought patterns through mindfulness and by acknowledging the fact that feelings of personal inadequacy are a part of the shared human experience.
In addition to psychological strategies for overcoming self-criticism, Schaafsma discussed the biological component of self-compassion. Repeating mantras, compassionately touching yourself (rubbing your neck, placing your hand over your heart, etc.) and practicing mindful breathing all trigger a release of oxytocin in the brain.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter with known antidepressant-like effects.
“This sudden rush of hormones can alleviate the fight or flight response our body has when we become both the attacker and the attacked, when our body perceives it to be a threat against itself,” said Schaafsma.
After the meeting, both Jaggers and Ewing agreed Schaafsma’s techniques will help them strengthen their own sense of self compassion.
“There’s a thousand million different perspectives out there,” said Ewing. “I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that not everybody is going to play by the same rules. That’s why it is important to look inward and make your own rules.”
Schaafsma encouraged those who are interested in learning more about improving their self-compassion to visit www.self-compassion.org.
The next Trans + Allies meeting is March 6. The group will host a panel presentation led by non-binary students and community members.