Being skilful and kind to ourselves is reasonably straightforward when we are in a familiar setting, we are feeling calm and confident and absolutely everything is going to plan. However, things are rarely like that. In our everyday living all sorts of things happen, you get a migraine, a loved one needs caring for, you have work dinner at an Italian restaurant and you can’t have gluten or you have people coming to stay, unexpectedly, at your house.

It is under such conditions that we go off track, we don’t notice when we’ve been gripping the steering wheel until we’re white-knuckling it or we suddenly realise we are paralysed by the overwhelm of everything on our to-do list. Just like being lost in the woods or on a hiking trail, it’s not until we realise that we are lost or struggling that we can stop, get our bearings, consult what we know and set our course for getting ‘back on track’.

The Helpful Compass is a tool that I’ve been using for a good few years now both with coaching clients and the patients I support. It works like a regular compass and has four cardinal points North – South – East – West. The magic is that for your Helpful Compass you choose, test and design your cardinal points.

helpful compass

How to start building your own Helpful Compass

When using a compass, you always need to identify your first reference point. Traditionally, sailors would start with the North Star, they would find the True North and this would then allow them to identify their South, East and West and thus realise where they were and how to find their way back on track, back to where they wanted to go.

For your Helpful Compass, start experimenting with what’s your True North. Your True North is what you check in with first when you realise that you are lost or struggling. An example could be ‘Enoughness’. If this is your True North it might be that you are striving for everything to be perfect and that in the pursuit of that perfection, you’ve lost sight of what’s proportionate and appropriate. This then can result in other important factors of your day or life being neglected.

The paradox is that often a rigid pursuit of perfection can have detrimental effects not just on other aspects that may be neglected but actually on the success of the goal itself. If the pursuit of perfection is driving your stress response and anxiety, chances are that the stress response and anxiety tip your pursuit into becoming unhelpful and therefore counter-productive. The True North of Enoughness will then remind you to check in with how close or distant you are from that feeling, just like a navigational point on a map would do.

Find your own way

Anything that’s customised needs road testing. Give yourself time to experiment with your True North and tweak and hone as required. Remember that what’s helpful to others may not be helpful to you. Your feelings are information that let you know if something is helpful to you or not. Get curious and take note.
Once you’ve got a working True North, it’s helpful to start experimenting with your three remaining cardinal points. This could be something like courage, kindness, slowing down, saying ‘No’ or whatever is relevant for you. Again, get curious and test what prompts and reminders are helpful to you at this point.

Having your customised Helpful Compass means that when you realise you’re overwhelmed, struggling or about to lose your cool, you can start by checking out your True North and then find your way from there with help from your other three cardinal points. You may find that some of your cardinal points are aspirational. This is absolutely fine and often immensely helpful, the more you practice that particular cardinal point, the more frequently you connect with your aspirational reference making it more familiar and more easily accessible for you.

Situation-specific compass

It can be helpful to create a compass for specific situations coming up, for example going on holiday or for the first months of being a new parent. Your True North may be quite different depending on what you want to use the Helpful Compass for. Some people prefer to have an actual compass on their person or somewhere visible to help them remember and practice using it. Some have drawn their own and have it as wallpaper on their phone or computer. Whatever way you create the prompt for your Helpful Compass, remember to be curious, experiment and keep it practical.