Even in a normal year, the holidays can bring many of us as much stress as joy. This year, many of us have additional challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This holiday season holds a lot of uncertainty for many of us, and uncertainty heightens anxiety. We may be unsure where we’ll be or who we’ll see during the holidays, and many of us also feel unclear about what is safe or advisable. Pandemic fatigue, the burnout and exhaustion we feel after so many months, can make it harder to consistently follow safety guidelines. We miss our “old” lives and feel desperate to return to normalcy. Months-long separation from family members or friends can increase the pressure we feel to get together over the holidays. So many of us are also struggling with lots of strong feelings this holiday season—sadness, frustration, anger, grief, and fear. Some families may also have financial stress and strain this holiday season or may be grieving loved ones lost to Covid-19. Regardless, we can acknowledge that this holiday season is more stressful than most for many of us.
What happens when you just can’t do it all? All of us fall short of our own expectations at times. How do we acknowledge and accept our inevitable stumbles and grant ourselves grace?
So how does self-compassion help us thrive in really difficulty times? Dr. Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher and psychology professor at UT-Austin, writes about three “distinct doorways” through which we can access self-compassion.
- Self-kindness involves being gentle and kind with ourselves instead of harshly critical and judgmental, as well as actively comforting ourselves, as we might respond to a dear friend.
- Common humanity refers to the understanding that you’re going through something right now that everyone struggles with at some point. It means feeling connected to others rather than isolated and alienated by our suffering and acknowledging the interconnected nature of our lives – which this pandemic seems to have made more salient for many of us
- Mindfulness means paying attention to what you are experiencing in the moment with a sense of curiosity and without judgment, acknowledging our bad feelings and knowing that they will pass.
We know that practicing self-compassion has several benefits, including increased happiness and well-being, lower anxiety, improved relationships, greater internal resources, and improved physical health. Engaging in self-compassion also allows us to have greater empathy for others; common humanity reminds us that the very people who most frustrate us are probably suffering, too, which can soften our frustration and allow us to be more patient. Despite knowing these benefits, self-compassion can be very difficult to practice. Individuals already struggling with depression or anxiety—and there are so many right now—can have a harder time being kind to themselves. Likewise, those of us susceptible to perfectionism can find it difficult to engage in self-compassion practices. As a therapist, I’ve also heard many people say, “I don’t want to let myself off the hook,” or “If I’m nice to myself, I’ll never get anything done.” We worry that if we’re too kind to ourselves, we’ll sit around all day bingeing on Netflix and eating chocolate. In fact, the opposite is true, individuals who practice self-compassion are actually more likely to get things done, less likely to procrastinate, and more likely to try new things.
How to Practice Self-Compassion During the Holidays
For those of you thinking you just cannot add one more thing to your to-do list, keep in mind that self-compassion is about subtracting, not adding.
Self-kindness: One way to be kind to yourself, is to work at letting go of expectations for the “perfect holiday experience” and curbing your inner critic. When you’re experiencing disappointment or sadness or worry, acknowledge it and comfort yourself. You might say, “This is a really tough time. Of course, it’s hard to get things done. It’s o.k. to do less this year or to do something different.” Think about how you’d comfort a close friend or perhaps what you’d say to your child and use those words to be gentle with yourself. Taking care of yourself, whether that means an extra long shower or rereading your favorite book, is another important way to practice self-kindness. When we’re overwhelmed or upset, our brains aren’t very good at coming up with ideas for self-care, so it can be helpful to make a list of self-compassionate activities that work for you. Post the list on your refrigerator or next to your bed or in the notes app on your phone. Consider taking a social media break because looking at photos friends have posted of their seemingly perfect Thanksgiving table or Christmas tree can get us stuck in an unhealthy cycle of social comparison.
Mindfulness – Acknowledging all the hard feelings you’re having, staying present in the moment
- Taking advantage of smaller holiday celebrations to carve out time to just “be” without any expectations, SLOW DOWN
- Find a quiet place, get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing only. Listen to the sound of your breath and notice how it feels in your body. When thoughts of what you need to do come racing into your mind, acknowledge them and let them go by—then refocus your attention on your breath. Do this again and again.
- Tuning in to the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, or textures of the season – mindfulness can be brought into any activity. Perhaps you’ll decorate your tree in a mindful manner, paying attention to how the light reflects of the glass ornaments, the different textures, or the smell of the tree. Or you might drink a cup of apple cider or hot chocolate in a mindful manner—first focusing on the look, then the smell, and then finally savoring the taste.
- Recognizing shared struggle (common humanity) – how to we highlight our sense of shared struggle. This last aspect is harder this year because gathering in groups is not socially responsible and could be dangerous)
- The next time you notice you are in pain or struggling with something say to yourself, “This hurts. I am not alone. Others are struggling right now too.” When I do this practice, I put my hand on my heart as I say it and I imagine others in the world right now who are also struggling. If I am feeling alone, I add some validation to this and say, “I feel alone right now and there are others feeling alone right now too.”
- Share your story of pain with a trusted friend that can offer empathy. Be careful to share it with a person that can hold space for me and my story. Someone who is working to embrace their own vulnerabilities and failures so that they can sit with mine. There is something incredibly healing about hearing, “me too.” And we only get to hear this when we practice courage and share our story with someone who has earned the right to hear it.
- When we are feeling at odds with others, it can be particularly important to shift our frame of reference to see ourselves as similar and connected with others—recognizing that we are all trying to make the best decisions we can for ourselves and our families, that we are all struggling to make hard decisions in an really difficult time
Being gentle with yourself if you struggle to practice self-compassion – “you don’t want to beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that it will somehow make you stop beating yourself up” (Kristin Neff)
How to model self-compassion for our kids
Maybe make connection to centering prayer?
How does clarifying your values factor into self-compassion or mindfulness?
The role of downward social comparison as an unhealthy way to build ourselves up and to feel better in the short term
Self-criticism makes us lose faith with ourselves, less confidence so we try less (less persistence); self-criticism contributes to depression and lower motivation; self-criticism contributes to fear of failure, which makes us less likely to try and persist, self-compassion provides the emotionally supportive environment needed for change and growth
Self-criticism gives us the illusion of control – you shouldn’t have failed – we really don’t have as much control – it’s hard to be exactly who we want to be
Role of social media – taking a break can help us disengage from unrealistic standards and comparisons
The idea that you have a “wise, compassionate self” somewhere inside you
Tend and befriend instinct – we are wired to give and receive care
Importance of practice – creating or strengthening neural pathways
Caring for ourselves triggers the release of oxytocin – the hormone of love and bonding, increase levels of oxytocin increase feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness
Reframing our inner dialogue:
- What am I observing?
- What am I feeling?
- What am I needing right now?
- Do I have a request of myself or someone else?
Self-compassion actually makes it easier—less threatening—to acknowledge and work on our weaknesses. When we’re caught up in the cycle of self-criticism and self-protection (?), it can be too painful or scary to look at ourselves realistically.