I don’t know if I would have been able to get through the past ten months if I hadn’t stumbled upon some research last December by a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin.
From the micro (trying to figure out what path would be best for me after graduation once I earn my B.A. in psychology and English) to the macro (coronavirus cases are surging to new highs in the U.S., there’s, um, kind of an incredibly important election that is already going on), anxiety and stress have been pretty up there recently, although that’s been the case for almost the entirety of 2020. At the start of all the disruptions from COVID-19 back in March, I really thought it would be a testament to my resiliency. I would be able to cope in spite of all the shake-ups.
While I’m still here, of course, and able to write these words, I have to admit I’ve had moments where I’ve been deeply disappointed in myself. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my tolerance for distress and frustration plummeted shortly after I stayed at home. I spent the vast majority of mid-March to mid-June at home, a quarter of the year that’s just a blur in retrospect, and even after some elements of my life returned to a new normal, I was still struggling. Doomscrolling took over my online habits on Twitter and Reddit, counterbalanced by spending way too much time on YouTube watching random videos for the sake of distraction. I spent, on average, just four hours each night sleeping, versus eight back in January and February.
The thing is, and it’s weird to think about, it could’ve been worse.
Back in December, back when I was still a fan of pursuing high self-esteem, I was flummoxed by the research that the concept wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Naturally, I was in denial mode for some time about it. How could self-esteem, so trumpeted by society and in my mind for quite a while, be so . . . disappointing? Not to mention, if it was used just to compare yourself to others, harmful, as the research was showing?
With that, I began looking at self-acceptance, but there was another aspect to alternatives to self-esteem that I stumbled upon: self-compassion. More specifically, I found the research of psychologist Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion.
Being kind to myself has never seemed all that normal to me, sad as that sounds. Even bringing up the less helpful theme of self-esteem in therapy had proven difficult for me to do, so in hindsight I’m surprised I ever came around to self-compassion.
Self-compassion has let me pick myself up after a lot of low points this year. In fact, the lows I had in 2020 are worse in some regards to what was going on in years like 2017 and 2018 when my depression was far more severe. Certainly part of the difference can be credited to cognitive behavioral therapy, which has helped me realize that what happens to me does not define me, that I can reframe what I believe and accept about myself. At the same time, I am indebted quite a bit to self-compassion.
As a result, I want to pivot these next few blog posts to exploring self-compassion in more detail. My first few posts spent a lot of time discussing self-acceptance, which can be a prerequisite, if you will, of being kind to yourself. Because after all, if you can’t accept yourself no matter what, it can be harder to extend compassion to yourself the same way you do others.
Of course in these posts, I’m going to be leaning a lot on the work of Dr. Neff, considering how much she has explored and researched this field. This week, I’m going be starting to regularly commit to what she describes as the self-compassion break, and next Sunday I’ll report on how it goes.
More importantly, I hope this allows you to at least entertain the idea that self-compassion might be for you. Rather than beating ourselves up about mistakes or comparing ourselves to others so we can feel good (or sometimes bad) about our behavior, self-compassion lets us commit to our values without hanging on conditions. I might also add that even if self-compassion somehow didn’t help us follow our aim, we would still be deserving of it considering the basic principles of self-acceptance–you’re okay enough to be kind to yourself.