During the past two years, learning to be kind to one’s self has been the hardest and most important lesson of all.
It would be an understatement of the century to say that the past two years have been challenging. What has made them even more difficult is the constant pressure we put on ourselves, the guilt we’ve internalised and the tendency towards comparison with others. This started at the beginning, with the onset of the first lockdown in March 2020. Suddenly, with many of us working from home or furloughed, and without having lengthy commutes every day, we had a lot of time on our hands. What to fill that time with? Our social media feeds were filled with people’s newfound ways to occupy their time – baking sourdough or banana bread, gardening, doing yoga or learning a new language. Social media has infamously brewed a culture of comparison, but that became even more toxic during the course of the pandemic when we had even more time to spend doom scrolling on our feeds. And it inevitably led to many of us feeling guilt, if we weren’t spending our time on such creative pursuits. Or maybe it led to us putting pressure on ourselves to be constantly doing and achieving, leading to burnout and other negative impacts on our mental health.
I certainly wasn’t filling the days of the first lockdown with these new hobbies. Not only was I feeling guilty about my supposed lack of achievement, and comparing my lack of productivity with others around me, but I started feeling lonely and isolated and my mental health started to deteriorate. And I found myself feeling guilty. Why me? What have I got to be down about? I kept telling myself I was lucky. I hadn’t lost my job, so I had financial security, and in fact, I was saving money from not commuting and socialising. I was able to work from home, so my health wasn’t being put at risk by going to work each day. I was living with my family, unlike many who were separated from their loved ones. I hadn’t had a drastic change of circumstances, unlike the many others I was hearing about each day when anxiously checking the news.
Of course this wasn’t a healthy way to approach the situation. If one of your loved ones is going through a difficult time, you wouldn’t minimise the way they’re feeling, or encourage them to look for a silver lining. So why do we do this to ourselves? We need to show ourselves the same kindness and compassion that we show to our family, friends, colleagues and peers when they are struggling. For me, I needed to remember that whatever my circumstances, my feelings were valid. The pandemic represented a complete upheaval of our lives and what was normal for us. Yes, there may have been silver linings from spending more time at home, or even just the ability to work from home when this was previously not possible. But that didn’t diminish the inevitable negative impact this crisis was having on us, whether that was dealing with practical consequences, the impact on our physical and mental health, the loss of normal aspects of our lives, anxiety about the future, loneliness and isolation and so forth.
During the upheaval that has been the last two years, self-care has never been more important. That means different things to different people. Self-care has a reputation for involving fancy pampering sessions in the spa, but it really doesn’t have to be so financially and practically out of reach. It can simply involve going for a walk to clear your head, reading a book, turning your phone off, dancing to music in your kitchen or whatever else brings you joy. Prioritising yourself can often seem selfish, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. You can only be your best self to others if you are taking care of and prioritising yourself.
An important part of self-care is kindness and acceptance. I wish I’d known that from the beginning of the pandemic. Accepting the way I was feeling, and that my feelings were valid. Acknowledging the extremely challenging times we were living in, and that it was going to have inevitable consequences for my mental health. Not comparing myself to others, and instead focusing on myself and what I needed. Not putting pressure on myself to constantly be doing and overachieving, but instead to simply be. These were all extremely valuable lessons, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the time to reflect and learn them. As we transition to the ‘new normal’, accepting that life is unlikely to ever be the same as it was before the pandemic, these lessons remain so important. People will have unsettling feelings and anxiety about what is to come in the future as we continue to navigate this uncertain time. We will continue to face challenges throughout our lives, but what remains important is how we approach those difficulties and how we care for ourselves. That includes being kind, forgiving and accepting, which is something I hope you’ll prioritise above all else.
Written by Anjeli Shah