By Cara Duchene
COVID-19, social distancing, lockdowns, work changes, and the loss of our typical day to day structure and support has taken a toll on everyone. As we work to manage our grief and anxiety about these changes and losses, we are often still expected to function at the same level professionally and personally that we did prior to these new, significant stressors. Perhaps it was already a struggle to manage your responsibilities and wellbeing even before the difficulties that 2020 has brought. The pressure to be productive and to put on a brave face is intense.
In these moments, it can be easy to be especially hard on ourselves for not functioning at the same level that we are used to. Perhaps you’re disheartened because it seems like you have more time at home, yet you aren’t able to meet your goals. Maybe you’re struggling to complete work or school assignments, or you haven’t engaged with hobbies or friends as much as you’d like.
While we might not be able to control the difficulty of the current moment, one thing we can do is show ourselves self-compassion. We practice self-compassion not to feel better, but because we feel bad. Like a parent who cares for their child who is sick, even if their care won’t cure the illness, we can care for ourselves when we feel overwhelmed and are hurting.
Three Core Elements of Self-Compassion
Expert self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff describes three core elements of self-compassion and how to put them into practice in her workbook The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Understanding and putting these elements into practice can help us to feel validated in our hurt and are part of the process of self-soothing when we are stressed, whether those hurts feel small or great. These core elements are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness means speaking to and about ourselves kindly, which is easier said than done. Have you ever noticed that you speak harshly to yourself, but are willing to provide love, support, and encouragement to others, even in similar circumstances? Self-kindness means speaking to ourselves from a place of love and compassion rather than one of anger and fear. “Instead of attacking and berating ourselves for being inadequate,” Neff says, “we offer ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance.”
“I know you are disappointed that you haven’t accomplished what you wanted today. That’s alright, I know I tried hard and it’s understandable because things are really hard for me right now.”
In moments when we struggle, we often feel alone in our struggle. Even if we know that everyone is having a tough time during the pandemic, we usually still find a way to tell ourselves that we’re handling it worse than everyone else. Luckily, self-compassion doesn’t require
comparing functioning, but only acknowledging a shared experience of suffering—grief, anger, fear, anxiety, loss, as well as guilt, embarrassment, shame, and disappointment. These are natural and normal parts of the human experience.
“I can’t expect to get everything done that I plan to every day, especially right now. We all fall short of our expectations and plans sometimes, and we all experience the fear of what might happen if we don’t accomplish what we set out to do.”
Mindfulness might seem like an odd element to include with self-compassion, but it is potentially the most important factor in the equation. In order to show compassion towards ourselves, it’s crucial that we take time to listen to our bodies and minds, and notice the difficult physiological sensations, emotions, and thoughts that we experience. As we notice them, rather than ignore or avoid them, we are able to validate that they are real and that they are difficult, uncomfortable, and painful. Mindfulness includes not only noticing our sensations, but also noticing them in the present moment without making interpretations about what those sensations mean and how long they will last.
“I’m feeling tightness in my chest, pressure behind my eyes, and am having thoughts that I’ve let my family, friends, and co-workers down today. I’m feeling sad, anxious, and embarrassed. These feelings won’t last forever, and I can acknowledge that it’s difficult and scary to be feeling this way.”
You Can Do This
It might feel difficult to shift your thinking in this way, and that’s ok too. This presents another great opportunity to show compassion for yourself—learning to care for ourselves and self-soothe is difficult, especially if we haven’t had a model for how to speak to ourselves kindly by others in our lives.
As best as you can, try and notice and catch yourself when you start to berate or attack yourself, or when you attempt to ignore or minimize the difficulties that you’re facing right now. It’s normal to be hurting right now, and you deserve care, love, and compassion in the face of that pain, even and especially from yourself.