“When we give ourselves compassion, we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives” - Dr. Kristin Neff
It is an unfortunate truth that it is often much easier to be more compassionate and kind to others than ourselves, even in times of great turmoil. Too often, we speak to ourselves in ways we would never speak to others, and this has negative effects on our mental health.
It has been 7 months since the world shifted dramatically in March. Due to changes brought on by COVID 19, we have changed the way we engage in our work, how we parent our children, how we engage in our most basic routines. Our worlds have been shaken up, changed in small and large ways, many out of our control. When we consider what we have all gone through, culturally and individually over the last 7 months, is it any surprise that we may be feeling a variety of emotions, positive and negative from day to day?
Over and over again, I hear individuals discuss the “wall” they have hit in the last several months; the sense that things feel suddenly so overwhelming and that as quarantine and physical distancing continues with no definitive end in sight, people are feeling sad, hopeless and anxious. They are grieving the lives they once had and trying to make sense of the current reality while juggling enmeshed roles and additional responsibilities. I have heard often “I just don’t know why I am feeling this way. This shouldn’t be this difficult.” Amidst a world rapidly changing, we often blame ourselves for the way we are feeling or question why we cannot cope in the same ways we used to be able to.
An added stressor at this time is the election. The election may stir up even more emotions, regardless of political affiliation. We may feel worried, anxious, fearful, excited, hopeful, depressed and any other combination of emotions as we await the election and any combination of emotions as we process the results. Politics are often tied to our personal values and beliefs and so of course the election may be a time full of stress, during a year when we may already feel our capacity to deal with stress has been stretched.
In times like these when we are all having normal emotional reactions to multiple outside stressors, self-criticism may become a go-to response, when in fact self-compassion and kindness are most needed. Dr. Kristin Neff defines Self-Compassion as treating yourself as kindly as you would a friend. She says when you feel compassion towards others we first notice their pain and suffering. Once we notice their pain, we feel warmth towards that person and a desire to help them in any way you can. When you feel compassion towards others you offer them kindness instead of criticism and you recognize that suffering and hardship are part of the human experience, in as much as joy and happiness is. She says “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult now,” “how can I comfort and care for myself?”
Neff’s 3 critical ingredients to self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement – Instead of saying “Things shouldn’t be this difficult. Why can’t I just power through?” we say “I am having a really hard time right now.”
- Common humanity vs. Isolation – Rather than feeling isolated or alone in our stress and uncertainty, recognizing that our emotions are universal and that we are connected to other humans who are feeling similar ways as us.
- Mindfulness vs. Over Identification – Neff says “mindfulness is a non-judgmental receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and be compassionate towards it at the same time…At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be over-identified with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
Please see this link for a “self-compassion break” activity that incorporates all of the above and can be part of a larger practice of being self compassionate and treating yourself as you would a friend.
Research shows that when people are more compassionate to themselves that they are actually more productive, and motivated, and more able to be compassionate towards others; self-compassionate people allow themselves to be fully human and ask “what do I need in this moment of sadness?” instead of “why am I so sad? (Neff, 2013)” The answer to “what do I need?” will be wholly individual and different for every person. What you need in moments of stress or pain may be simply to validate yourself, to remind yourself that it is ok to not be ok. It may be to take a walk, set your work down, and come back to it after a pause, if possible. It may be to reach out to a friend, disengage from media, to permit yourself to cry, to give your self permission to be happy, to laugh with a coworker or vent in equal measure; it may mean a thousand different things that are all valid and reasonable given the situation. It also may mean reaching out for mental health support in the community or through our EAP ( 866 -750 - 1327).
Whatever it is that you need in your moments of stress amid all we are going through in our world, my hope for you is that you will be compassionate with yourself, to treat yourself with kindness, and to care for yourself as diligently as you would a good friend.
References/Links for further learning:
- Kristen’s Neff’s website on self-compassion: https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
- Kristin Neff’s 20 min TED talk on self-compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4
- To learn about the benefits of self-compassion vs. self-esteem: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion
- A fantastic article about the effect of COVID on our stress/surge capacity, with useful tips on how to cope amid a pandemic: https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c
Hanna Culbertson - Contact
MSW CSWA, UCC Life Coach, Student Services