Be compassionate towards yourself: A psychologist’s view on mindfulness – by Dr Tara Hickey

Victoria State Representative for Compassionate Mind Australia, Dr Tara Hickey, details in this Q&A her initial experiences and challenges in practicing mindfulness. She shares the benefits of mindfulness in her life in general and as a psychologist. Lucky for us, she also provided tips on how to practice mindfulness!

tara hickey

What made you decide to practice mindfulness in your life especially in your career as psychologist?
I can’t really remember when I first heard of mindfulness. Although I do remember it was 2008 and I was practicing as a clinical psychologist in the NHS in London and it seemed to be the buzz word at the time. I know a psychologist who had a long-established mindfulness practice way before it became more mainstream. I respected and trusted in his wisdom and thought to myself – well if he practices then it’s definitely worth exploring. I booked myself on a Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) course that was run by a talented teacher Vanessa Hope from the University of Bangor. Vanessa helped me understand and learn about mindfulness not only through her teaching but also through her own actions. When I begin to understand the power of mindfulness for myself I began to think about how my clients could find it helpful. At the time I was working with youth with psychosis. Most people naturally mentally fought against voices (auditory hallucinations) which often caused them to become more problematic. However, I wondered what would happen if they developed relationship with them instead which was not reactive and instead took the opportunity to understand their voices and develop a different relationship with them

How has being mindful helped you so far in your career as a health practitioner?
Mindfulness has helped me in a number of ways. It can help me be more present with a client and more attuned to the individual’s needs. It has also provided me with a better understanding of the working of my own mind, my emotions and reactions. This is important to be aware of when working with clients as sometimes practitioners can find themselves tempted to take on the saving role or some other unhelpful role. My role as a psychologist is not to save someone but to help them understand the difficulties they are experiencing and develop their own resources to deal with it. When I notice this temptation, I can then choose a wiser course of action with my client.

What are examples of scenarios where mindfulness affected your life in general?
There’s been times when it has been more obvious than others. When my life is busy during the day I notice how easy it is to rush our interactions with others to almost bump up against them. Mindfulness is a good reminder to be present and take it slower. It can help reduce my reaction to a difficult situation and while it may not make my anger or strong reaction go away at times it will certainly take the edge off it. It will help me return to an emotional balance sooner than I would have otherwise. It has helped me developed more empathy for others as there’s a stronger sense that we are all humans who have no choice of where we are born or what body we will inhabit and we are all doing our best to live and survive. It often makes me stop in the night to gaze at the stars and recognize the expanse of the world. Sometimes I’ve experienced a simple task like putting on my shoes so vividly that it makes me realize how often we are distracted as humans. I’ve also had an experience where I noticed a bug in my bathroom sink. My mind was so clear at that point I could feel the inter-being of all living humans and creatures on this planet. We can often forget about the bigger picture when going about our busy lives. It also helps me to appreciate the good in life and sustain a daily gratitude practice.

Do you have any tips on practicing mindfulness?
Choose an anchor for your awareness

  • If it’s your breath follow your natural breath – don’t strain or change it in anyway
  • If your mind wanders simply return your attention to your chose anchor (e.g. the breath) when you notice
  • Try not to judge or criticize yourself – our minds are naturally made to wander so it’s to be expected when we practice
  • Notice whether your attention is too forced or too lazy…sometimes we can put too much effort or not enough effort into the practice – explore what’s right for you
  • Explore a number of practices from ‘sitting on the cushion’ (formal practice) to practicing throughout the day. For example, you may like to eat a snack mindfully – really notice the taste/texture
  • Be compassionate towards yourself. Try adding some compassion of loving-kindness practices into your mindfulness practices.

What are/were the challenges you faced in practicing mindfulness?
I found a practice mindfulness of thoughts most challenging. The idea was to focus on your mind but to let your thoughts come and go. I found this particularly hard to do but found it much easier to focus on my breath instead. Initially I wasn’t sure how to infuse compassion into my practice but by simply staying with the intention it happened naturally.

Dr Tara Hickey, the Victoria State Representative for Compassionate Mind Australia, finished her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Birmingham in 2008.

She completed a Mindfulness Self-compassion (MSC) teacher training with its founders Dr Kristin Neff and Dr Christopher Germer in the US, as well as an advanced Compassion Focused Therapy with its founder Prof Gilbert in Europe.

Currently, Dr Hickey is taking a PhD on Mindfulness and Compassion at Monash University. As part of her studies, she is piloting and evaluating a mindfulness and compassion group program for youth with psychosis.

She resides in Melbourne with her partner, stepdaughter and beagle. Among the things she enjoys are rock-climbing and rambling with her beagle.

To find out more about Dr Hickey visit this link:
https://www.vcps.com.au/clinical-psychologist/dr-tara-hickey

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