An Academic's Journey to Self-Compassion

Feb. 15, 2019

Russ Toomey shares insights about his journey through graduate school and finding the path to self-compassion, as a call to address the compromised state of mental health of graduate students.

Grand Canyon


The refreshing cool, mountain air on Mt. Lemmon has always been a blessing for this desert dweller. There I sat – on the side of the mountain – deeply breathing in the refreshing air and waiting for rescue crews to arrive. Moments before, while following my adventurous four year old son on the trail, I slipped, heard the crack and pops, and knew immediately that I had broken my leg – and that the break was bad. In that moment, I briefly drifted to a different place. I reflected on the teachings that I embraced while co-leading a research study to examine the effectiveness of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT®) with transgender youth and their caregivers. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing in order to get my mind off of the pain. I knew that what I needed was compassion – and that I needed to give myself that gift in that moment. In that moment I remembered one of my favorite meditations from those CBCT sessions. I began to imagine that my partner was by my side sharing love and care with me (even though physically she ran to the parking lot to find cell signal to call 9-1-1). I received it – feeling the warmth embrace me. I then imagined several friends and family members surrounding me sharing their love and wish for my well beiing. I needed their love and care in that moment of trauma and pain. And soon enough, the first responders were surrounding me – and I was open and ready to receive their compassion.

Prior to my participation in CBCT® as a researcher, my immediate responses to this particularly traumatic event would have likely involved critical self-talk rather than self-compassion. Most likely, I would have engaged in self-blame talk (e.g., scolding myself for wearing the wrong shoes, climbing up the slippery mountainside). While I do not believe that my general lack of self-compassion before engaging with CBCT® meant that was unable to practice compassion with others, I do believe that we – universally speaking – will not reach a truly compassionate society until we can be compassionate with ourselves first. Thus, while most folks probably think of engaging in compassion with others – I’m going to focus this blog entry on cultivating compassion for the self.

As a professional in the academy, I wish I had learned about self-compassion earlier in my career. Recent research clearly documents that graduate school is a stressful experience: a 2014 study conducted at the University of California Berkeley found that almost half of PhD students and over a third of master’s degree students reported clinical levels of depressive symptoms. Personally speaking, while I probably had been struggling with anxiety throughout my life, the physical symptoms (think: profuse sweating, shortness of breath) did not emerge until I was in a PhD program. I vividly remember profusely sweating just thinking about sharing my ideas – and the many sleepless nights that occurred during graduate school.

Being an academic is a path that inherently bound up with vulnerability – and for many, this also means imposter syndrome (i.e., fears or beliefs of not being worthy, and eventually being exposed or 'found out'). The work of scientists involves pushing existing boundaries, exploring new terrain, and finding solutions to complex problems. As a graduate student or early career faculty member, we often are not only seeking to advance science but we are doing so in the context of also pleasing our advisors, professors, or mentors (who, by the way, have power over whether we actually obtain that PhD or promotion). We often set unrealistic goals that sound like, “I’m going to write this paper…that I haven’t started…by the end of the week!”, and are met with rejection often. To illustrate, fewer than 2 in 10 papers are accepted by top-tier journals, and the chances of being awarded a research grant are often less than 1 in 10, and these are two of the most important areas in which emerging researchers and scholars must produce in order to have a career in their field. Thus, the context is not one that is typically described as compassionate, and – in most PhD programs - there are no formal classes that teach budding academics about how to be compassionate with themselves as they navigate this competitive and stressful environment.

We must begin to address the compromised state of mental health in graduate school. I believe this means talking openly about self-compassion. In addition to teaching key theoretical frameworks or methods of analysis, we also need to talk openly and perhaps teach ourselves and students how to be compassionate with oneself and how to see and interpret our own inadequacies or failings as part of the human condition. While a formal class or curriculum makeover might be out of reach for some at the moment, we can start “small”. When you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk – add something positive about yourself. Rather than focusing on rejection – celebrate accomplishments. I’ve started to add a list of accomplishments next to my “to-do” list on the white board on my office.  Practice breathing – just like I did on that mountain. Paying attention to our breath allows us to collect our thoughts, (perhaps) calm down, and opens up the possibility for self-compassion. 

About Russ Toomey

Dr. Russell Toomey is an Assistant Professor of Family Studies & Human Development in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Arizona, where his research focuses on LGBT and Latinx youth, schools and family systems. He is the Chair,Youth Development and Resilience Initiative in the Frances McClelland Institute of Children, Youth & Families.