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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Hone the skill of self-compassion during COVID-19

COVID-19 has shaken our world like a child’s snow globe. And it’s hard to find our true north when we’ve been pushed outside our comfort zone while a blizzard rages with no end in sight.

We are facing each day with a cloud of uncertainty, and anxiety is threatening to douse whatever plans we’ve marshalled in to service this unpredictable “new normal.” My advice to everyone right now is to put aside your previous expectations, to discard old ways of knowing and doing, and embrace the present with a compassionate and forgiving heart.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned, over many decades of trying and failing, is that we need to show ourselves empathy first, before we can turn outward and share it. 

This may sound simple, but it isn’t easy.

I’m on the board of directors for The Gathering Place shelter in St. John’s, N.L. I’m regularly in touch with their leadership, and my heart aches for the challenges they are facing. They serve the most vulnerable. The gold-hearted sisters and exceptionally committed staff who run the organization are struggling to keep their doors open and meet the needs of people who are experiencing food and housing insecurity, many of them living with serious mental illness or severe addictions.

Every now and then, after a long day of work and an utter lack of human contact, I’ll have a moment of sadness, a flicker of grief for the normalcy we all crave. Then a fleeting thought will assert itself, Who am I to complain when others are without the most basic human needs?

But there’s a problem with this pattern. To deny our losses and repudiate our own challenges because someone else’s are greater isn’t high-minded. Of course, keeping perspective is helpful. But failing to acknowledge our own hurts isn’t altruistic.

It’s quite the opposite.

At this time in our lives, ranking our suffering is the last thing we should be doing. We must own our sadness and give ourselves the space and time to feel the many losses, big or small, we are facing each day. That someone else is hurting more is cold comfort. Ironically, discrediting our own feelings can actually harden our hearts to the hurt others are feeling.

If you find yourself easily irritated, unable to sleep, having difficulty focusing or experiencing bone-deep tiredness, your body is sending you a signal. Grief is a shape-shifter. And make no mistake, we’re all experiencing a form of it right now, whether we name it or not. 

It’s easy slip into negative self-talk when we snap at a loved one, let the laundry pile up, and fail to meet our post-COVID standards. We need to expect, accept, and embrace the fact that our energy for conventional pursuits is being sapped as our brains process a reality that’s changing at lightning speed. If homeschool is a flop, dinner is a bag of chips, and getting dressed is wearing your good sweatpants, so be it. If the bar is higher at your house . . . good for you, but don’t flaunt it.

It would serve us well to remember that grief is grief, loss is loss, and sadness is sadness. Our empathy is only finite if we deny it to ourselves. 

If you want to learn a new skill during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best one I can suggest is self-compassion. Take this time of global trauma, and use it as a tool to blunt the edges of your self-criticism and quiet your internal monologue of inadequacy. Treat your perceived failings as stepping-stones toward the kind of personal growth that doesn’t come from reviving a hobby, but instead from doing the hard work of practising self-love ꟷ not in spite of the imperfections but because of them.

Last night, I let myself mourn all the people and things I miss. I sat with my sadness and grief and named all my losses. Often this opens the floodgates to past hurts and traumas, and we can feel like we’re bowing under the weight of the world. But what’s so interesting to me, and so indicative of the human spirit’s resilience, is something researchers have found: that just 90 seconds of actively feeling our emotions is often enough to rebalance our equilibrium.

Feeling sorry for yourself has gotten a bad rap. Go ahead. Give yourself the OK to feel sorry. You might just find it was the most productive thing you did today.

This morning, I woke up feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, and ready to help.

Showing ourselves kindness, being tender with our bruised and battered selves as we navigate these unchartered waters, is the best way to open our hearts and minds in service to the needs of others.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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