How many adjectives can you think of to describe life since COVID-19 ushered us into this “new abnormal”?
Anguishing, demanding, difficult, excruciating, painful, lonely, challenging … Truly, I could go on (and on and on...). It’s been a wild ride for sure, and needless to say, not in a good way.
Currently, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of supporting greater emotional resilience in college students. And, for good reason. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Nearly nine out of 10 faculty members said they believed students' mental-health struggles worsened during the pandemic” and many professors want more training on how to help struggling students. Another recent survey reported that 95% of college students have experienced “negative mental health symptoms as a result of COVID-19-related circumstances” and “almost half (48%) believe the mental health effects have directly affected their education.”
So here I find myself searching for overplayed adjectives to capture the unique flavor of mental health suffering à la college life in 2021, while all of us collectively scratch our heads asking, ”What the heck are we supposed to do?”
Allow me to point out the obvious: there is no easy answer. If there were, you wouldn’t be reading this article and I surely wouldn’t be writing it.
Here’s the thing though – having coached thousands of college students pre-pandemic and having for the past four years coached overly-stressed founders and CEOs, I have observed that there is one critical skill that is most consistently and reliably in short supply: self-compassion. Whether you're applying to college, working on graduating, starting your career, or striking out on your own to start a business, practicing self-compassion is the key to developing the emotional resilience necessary to create the future of your dreams.
I get it, self-compassion sounds a little “soft,” which is the opposite of what we’ve been told it takes to be successful. So many of us are taught that to be resilient, we need to be the opposite of soft: we need to show grit, mental fortitude and toughness. It’s in the air we breathe: our culture can render us spellbound in the belief that to succeed we need to rise above the competition, be special, dig deep within ourselves to find the strength to keep on keeping on.
When inconvenient emotions like fear, sadness, grief or anger surface, we attempt to push them aside, or push them down. And, when we’re tired, when we stumble, doubt ourselves, lose hope, experience anxiety or despair, an old message kicks in that implores us with that all too familiar question “What’s wrong with me?”
In essence, asking “What’s wrong with me?” when uncomfortable feelings arise is akin to saying, “my feelings are evidence that I am broken”. This is very problematic in terms of the development of emotional regulation and emotional resilience. In fact, there is a psychological term for this habit. Disregarding and attempting to shut down or shut out our feelings leads to a psychological phenomenon called amplification.
Amplification is exactly what it sounds like: the more we attempt not to feel, the bigger our feelings become. And here’s the rub - if we’re in the habit of believing that uncomfortable or painful feelings are evidence of our brokenness, then the bigger our feelings become, the more broken we can grow to believe we are.
In coaching, whether I’m working with a college student or a CEO, I hear the same things:
The point is, emotional suffering doesn’t care if you’re 18 or 48. What does matter is that we learn how to respond to our feelings in an effective way. Most of us weren’t taught how to be emotionally resilient.
In a coaching session, when I hear examples of limited thinking and disempowered beliefs, I can pretty much guarantee my client is caught in the grips of pushing away uncomfortable feelings and then judging themselves for having them. What I know is that if they keep this up and if their stress continues to grow, they are unconsciously creating fertile ground for depression and anxiety to swoop in and take up shop.
You know what else worries me? When I hear clients start to compare themselves to others. When this happens, I know it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get down to the crucial work of teaching self-compassion.
Listen, there is always someone more brilliant, skillful or talented than you (and me!), and there is virtually no way to navigate the college admissions process without being reminded of that. We wager so much when we define who we are by what we’re feeling in the moment or what we’ve accomplished (or not accomplished). It’s even riskier when we do this while comparing ourselves to other people.
Feelings are not who we are; they are what we experience. Accomplishments and failures are also not who we are: the rush of success (a good grade or closing a deal) is all too fleeting and temporary. When our self-worth is measured by feelings, accomplishments and failures, it will inevitably rise and fall, and fall and fall...Like a ping pong ball, our emotions will bounce back and forth with no access to peace, comfort and stability.
However, there is a better alternative that many psychologists, like Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion, the Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself, believe is a more effective and stable route to emotional resilience. The research on self-compassion strongly suggests that people who are more self-compassionate lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are habitually hard on themselves.
Think of it this way: unlike trying to motivate ourselves by kicking our own butts when we falter, self-compassion is at the ready, stepping in exactly where and when we need it most. It is available to us when we’re lonely, scared, overwhelmed, anxious and unmotivated (to name just a few).
So, how do you take beliefs like “I’m not ready, I can’t do this, I’m not smart enough and I’m an imposter” and respond with self compassion instead of painful resignation? Well, here’s a hint: you start by identifying the feeling first.
Let’s break down the steps to cultivating self-compassion.
First, say out loud, “I am not ready.” Then, ask yourself: what is the feeling underneath that belief? Take your time. For many, it might be fear.
Next, respond to the emotion of fear with kindness, tenderness and empathy. This might feel totally counterintuitive and for some, extremely awkward. That’s okay, growth requires discomfort. Kindness, tenderness and empathy might sound something like:
Last, if finding the compassionate words is hard, ask yourself what you would say to a friend or family member who was afraid? How would you support them?
I get it. I make it sound easy. It’s not.
I know it’s not, because I too can turn on myself. I’ll catch myself saying, “I should know better, I teach this stuff, why did I get so impatient with my husband? What’s wrong with me?”
And, to that, I simply interrupt the habit by saying something like, “It’s happening. I am not being kind to myself. We all struggle and I too am learning to practice self-compassion.”
The key is to start small and be kind to yourself when (not if) you find yourself resorting back to being mean and critical. Trust me when I say it will happen. Like, a lot. Remind yourself that simply noticing you’re being critical is the first step to break the habit and each time you practice responding to your suffering – to your human emotions and your limited thinking – with kindness instead of self-criticism you are actively developing greater emotional resilience and a more stable sense of self.
Give it a try. It might feel awkward as all get-out at first, but I promise, it won’t hurt.
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