How to be kinder to yourself in difficult times
By Lauren Taylor
We human beings tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to reach goals and be the best we can be – all the while making it look effortless on social media.
And despite the strange, scary situation we find ourselves in right now, many people are feeling similar pressures to ‘make the most’ of the time at home, whether that’s by getting fit, baking perfect Instagram-worthy cakes or taking up an impressive sounding hobby.
But if the lockdown and coronavirus crisis in general is taking its toll on your mental wellbeing, just getting through each day might seem like enough to focus on right now – and that’s OK.
“We’re living through an unprecedented time with a lot of uncertainty. The last thing we want to be doing is putting any more pressure on ourselves,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy. “First and foremost, be kind to yourself – you’re not expected to have it all together right now.”
Just like in any kind of personal crisis or sudden loss, you’re allowed to give yourself a break.
Don’t compare how you’re coping to others
“We have a general tendency to compare our choices, successes and failures to others, as this can provide us with a benchmark to assess how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we are doing,” says Dr Natalia Stanulewicz, lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University. But she explains that this can have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing, because it roots feelings of self-worth on external rather than internal factors.
“Comparing yourself to others in challenging times might be especially dangerous as it can result in additional stress,” she says. “[Instead] focus on yourself and your own goals, with a consideration of circumstances that this challenging time can have on your life.”
Stanulewicz says it’s crucial to remember though that we all have different ways of coping in a crisis. For some, it’s being very productive, working long hours or throwing themselves into a new hobby, for others it’s taking more time to relax. “These choices should not be graded or judged, they just reflect different ways that people try to cope. So, if you’re not ultra-productive at the moment, that’s fine,” she says. “Find a way that works for you and focus on doing that.” Even if it’s mostly chilling on the sofa watching boxsets.
Touroni points out that what’s being showcased on social media is “the version of ourselves we deem the most perfect”, and even in the midst of a pandemic, that hasn’t changed. Seeing these posts might be spurring on feelings of inadequacy in you, but remember that while your friend may have run a 10k, made a healthy meal and started writing a novel, they probably didn’t post about feeling scared, anxious and down in-between.
It’s OK to lower the standards you set for yourself right now
While being driven is a positive thing helping us to reach goals, Touroni says: “It becomes negative when the driving force is underlying anxiety or fear of not being ‘good enough’. People who are very hard on themselves tend to have what we call in psychology ‘unrelenting standards’.
“The main problem with this is that they place their values on their achievements and productivity rather than valuing themselves for simply who they are.
“If you find you’re being hard on yourself, dig deeper to understand where this might stem from. Do you feel like you’re trying to prove something, to yourself or others? Can you trace back to where this all started?”
If that sounds like you, now might be a good time to address it because, Touroni says, “Lockdown is likely to be making all of our vulnerabilities more pronounced.” In other words, if you had a tendency to put a lot of pressure on yourself to achieve high standards in ‘regular’ life, you might be doing so even more now. This, she says, could “land someone in a dangerous place”.
Also, your circumstances might make it more difficult to reach the standards you’d ordinarily have for yourself.
Maybe your priority is now teaching your children or supporting elderly relatives, for example. “If you do decide to set yourself some goals but fail to meet them on a certain day or week, there’s no need to treat it like a failure,” says Stanulewicz. “Try and treat yourself as you would a friend or a loved one – with warmth, care and understanding.
“In the current, unusual situation it’s really important to limit the typical human tendency to be one’s harshest judge.”
Do some exercises in self-compassion
Self-compassion, Stanulewicz says, is about treating yourself with kindness even when things go wrong – whether that’s losing your job in the pandemic or putting on a few kilos in lockdown (now is absolutely not the time to be critical about your body). “From childhood we’re taught that it’s important to be kind to others, unfortunately we never really get the same lessons in being kind to ourselves.
“Thankfully self-compassion can be practised and improved upon,” she says. “And it might be one of the things that will help you not only in the current situation, but through any other challenging time.”
One technique she suggests for developing a kinder attitude to yourself is to write a letter, “in which you offer support and comfort for someone who is going through a difficult time – then address the letter to yourself”.
Stanulewicz explains: “This simple exercise, which you can go back to every time you feel like you need some extra encouragement, will hopefully help you feel more positive about yourself and start your pathway toward more self-acceptance and self-love, which are hugely important during challenging times.”
Meanwhile, Touroni suggests scheduling in some ‘me time’ each day. “Commit to doing at least one thing a day that is just for you, for example run yourself a nice long bath, light some candles, do an online yoga class.
“Starting every day with a 10-minute mindfulness meditation will give you an idea of what emotional state you’re in so that you can plan a day that is line with how you’re feeling,” she says. “Be gentle with yourself on the days you need it.”