blog, Blog Posts

Starting a week of self-compassion

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.

Blog Posts

Compassion without condition

This likely is going to be a bad blog post.

The title won’t be much of a hook. Or it will be too clickbait-y.

Some of my paragraphs will be too long, the lines wending on and on, swallowing up more of the screen than I had planned. Your eyeballs will wander when they see how much text I’m throwing at them.

Or my paragraphs won’t be long enough, and all your eyes will focus on is the vast swaths of white on the webpage background until, irritated, you decide to click away.

Those are the worries I’m having about this blog post before I even get to the actual content.

I keep writing, though, in spite of my awareness of the relative mediocrity this post will fall into. I’m not a professional blogger, nor do I have any special credentials when it comes to creating outstanding online content. I’m just a typical internet user.

What helps me keep going through all these obvious fears, doubts, and not-so-appealing realities of writing this blog is . . . the point of this blog itself–the ideas of unconditional self-acceptance and self-compassion. (Although I wasn’t expecting my introductory post to be quite so meta.)

Imagine you’re growing a plant. I have a succulent staring back at me as I write this, so let’s say it’s a succulent. Now, instead of watering this plant and giving it sunlight and ensuring that it’s planted in the right kind of soil, I yell at it. 24/7. In addition, I decide that if the succulent doesn’t reach a certain height within a ridiculously short amount of time, I’m going to cut it down and search for another plant.

The succulent is doomed.

Hopefully this sounds pretty absurd. Unfortunately, though, this is what us humans have to put up with–from ourselves.

We put contingencies on our acceptability, our level of “enoughness,” and promptly attack ourselves, believing this is the best strategy for personal growth and wellbeing. (In the opening chapters of her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach drives a similar point home in much more eloquent language.)

This blog will look at an alternative: looking at yourself as being unconditionally enough, and also allow yourself without condition to be compassionate and kind towards yourself.

You don’t need this blog. At least, in the sense that you don’t need anything to ensure you’re acceptable, including a blog saying you’re acceptable, because your self-acceptance can be present all the time, throughout your life. Nothing this blog offers or suggests is something you must do.

By no means am I saying you shouldn’t do anything with your life.

That would, after all, be imposing another “should” on your life. I can attest that, because of my depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I have spent spans of multiple days doing nothing but eating junk food, sleeping, showering, and Googling various phrases as a compulsion to (in vain) relieve my obsessive thoughts. Those have been miserable experiences I hope to never re-live. But did they at any point make me any less than enough? Did they somehow mean I no longer deserved compassion from myself, just because I wasn’t being productive or committing to any of my values?

Indeed, using the concepts of unconditional self-acceptance and self-compassion are what helped me get back on-track with my values after having those troubles with OCD and depression. Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers once spoke on the seeming contradiction between accepting yourself and wanting to change and grow as a person.

This blog will explore all the aspects of life–and there are too many of them to list out here without exhausting your eyes–where shifting the paradigm towards self-acceptance and self-compassion would make such an impact for you.

None of the ideas presented in this blog are coming out of a vacuum. Indeed, I owe most of this blog to a single post from 2008 in Psychology Today by Dr. Leon Seltzer called “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance,” and on the research of self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristen Neff, whose website I can’t recommend enough. With all my posts, I’ll be citing the research of experts in psychology. It’s not like I would trust one random internet user’s opinions on these topics to be acceptable. Rather, what I’m hear to do is to bring awareness of these ideas to more people and to share my experiences with those concepts so that you’re able to get a more concrete look at them in practice.

Again, you don’t need this blog.

But if you’re ready to start a fundamentally new way of looking at yourself, one that gives you a sense of no longer being afraid to, well, live, then read on.

(P.S.: for another incredible examination of the basic philosophy behind unconditional self-acceptance–with some aspects of self-compassion present in it as well–I absolutely can’t recommend this article by cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. Russell Grieger in Psychology Today enough.)