The Book That Changed My Life This Summer

So far, 2020 might be the year that I have spent the most time with myself. Social distancing and isolating in my home for nearly eight months has given me ample opportunity for “me” time, some of which has been enjoyable and some of which has been quite painful. I’ve spent a lot of this time dwelling on all of the ills and pain points in my life. Missing my friends, fearing that I’ve lost my social skills, and anxiously anticipating what the rest of the school year will look like has stirred up a range of unpleasant emotions. And once these unpleasant emotions arise, I often try to rid myself of them as quickly as possible.

Like many of you, I’ve blown through hobby after hobby trying to find stable activities that cheer me up and feel like “self-care.” I’ve painted, taken virtual dance classes, practiced yoga and meditation, but my emotions have remained turbulent and unsteady, which has been the source of even more frustration. But after reading the book Self Compassion by Kristen Neff, my perception of “self-care” transformed dramatically. Rather than constantly trying to force my unpleasant emotions out of me, I simply let them be.

The premise of “self-compassion” is treating yourself how you would treat a friend in a moment of suffering. Most of us wouldn’t be tough on our friends when they are experiencing a painful situation. We wouldn’t want to force them into feeling happy, by urging them to do seemingly cheerful activities that they might not want to do. Instead, we would sit with them. We would listen to them. We would be present with them and give them the reassurance and care that they need. Why not do the same for ourselves in moments of suffering?

In Self-Compassion, Neff presents the three elements of practicing self-compassion. The first element is practicing loving self-kindness, which involves being warm, caring, and understanding towards yourself when you are in pain. This might look like talking to yourself in a soothing manner or indulging in something that feels good for your mind and body, like eating a comforting meal or taking a warm shower. The second element is recognizing common humanity, that is, that you aren’t alone in your suffering and that it’s a natural part of life. It helps me to visualize all of the people around the world that are likely experiencing feelings similar to mine at the moment. The third and final element is mindfulness, which requires you to view your emotions in a non-judgmental space, without repressing or exaggerating them – just letting them be. This is definitely my favorite element because it typically requires me to slow down and take a break. I simply name the emotions that I'm feeling and view them in a space of pure observation, without any judgement. 

When my undesirable emotions arise, are they still difficult to grapple with? Of course. What I’ve learned from practicing self-compassion isn’t how to rid myself of sadness and pain, that’s impossible. Rather, what I’ve learned is how to be still with myself, comfort myself, and truly assure myself during challenging circumstances. Sometimes this means just sitting in my room and naming the items I see around me in an attempt to be mindful and present. Sometimes it means calling a friend to remind me that I’m not alone in my struggles. Sometimes it means cooking myself a delicious meal, exercising, or literally giving myself a hug to make myself feel cared for.

There is no way around it: dealing with unpleasant emotions is, well, unpleasant. But by finding small ways to comfort yourself as you would a friend, you can cultivate techniques that make yourself feel truly cared for.