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One thing you can do is be kind to you
When everything else feels hopeless, focus on your inner child.
How are we feeling, y’all? A little anxious? Exhausted? Hopeless? I get it.
In the week since the last newsletter, which now feels like forever ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching missiles at airports and other military facilities, bombing hospitals, and sending more than 150,000 Ukrainians to seek refuge. It didn’t take long after that for politicians, security experts, and your average social media user to debate whether we were headed into World War III.
It’s ... a lot. The images of terrible destruction and heartbroken refugees. The fears of what this conflict might mean for the rest of us. The feelings of helplessness, wondering what to do when so many others are suffering. The fact that all of this is happening on top of a pandemic that hasn’t yet reached its end, at a time when we may be experiencing our own anniversary fatigue.
All of these things can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Or anxious. Or exhausted. Or even a little bit hopeless. A few nights ago, I burst into tears, thinking about the war and how scary things must be overseas. I was feeling all of those things. And I didn’t know what to do about it.
When I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, I knew I needed to address what was happening in Ukraine—not because I am well-versed in this topic or have any answers, but because it’s weighing heavily on all of us.
I don’t know how to make the situation better. But I do know that the best thing you can do in especially stressful times is to be kind to yourself. I know that self-compassion isn’t a selfish thing to do; rather, taking care of ourselves better equips us to take care of others.
Self-compassion—being warm and kind to ourselves, just like we would treat a friend who was struggling—is an especially important skill in times of crisis. Instead of succumbing to anxiety and fear, being self-compassionate allows us to focus on positive emotions, like happiness and gratitude. And by embracing those positive emotions, we have more bandwidth to be helpful in difficult situations.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a growing body of research to support this.
A recent study discovered that people who self-report the highest levels of happiness also give more of their money and time to others. Likewise, research supports that those who practice gratitude are more likely to help others, even strangers. Researchers have also found that individuals who possess higher self-control—the ability to regulate their responses in order to avoid undesirable behaviors and increase desirable ones—are, you guessed it, more cooperative, helpful, generous, and caring.
So how do we do this? In a time when we’re already feeling stressed and anxious, trying to become a happier and more grateful person can feel tonally dissonant. When there are people around the world fleeing for their lives, it can feel inappropriate—selfish even—to focus our energy on self-compassion.
I can reassure you that it’s not. Just remember the end goal: Taking care of yourself enables you to better take care of others.
Today’s definition of self-care is a murky one. Many of the practices that we associate with “treating ourselves,” like taking a bubble bath, having a second glass of wine, or zoning out to Netflix, are things that ultimately disconnect ourselves from what’s causing our suffering.
These things might give us some temporary relief, but they don’t allow us to face the current situation. They don’t help us process our feelings around the war in Ukraine, the upcoming pandemic anniversary, or whatever else might be causing stress and anxiety.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, requires facing the hard moments. It means being gentle with ourselves, despite (and especially in face of) difficult circumstances. We don’t judge ourselves for feeling bad, or try to run away from it. We give ourselves grace. A hug. A bit of reassurance that everything will be ok.
And once we do that, we can connect with other people who can use our help.
These days, when I think about being gentle with myself, I think about my 16-month-old daughter. Whenever she’s upset—if she’s hurt, scared, frustrated, or just overly tired—I do my best to be patient and to soothe her. I offer physical comfort and talk to her in a calm voice. I do what I can to help the situation.
Before long, she’s feeling better. She’s back to her usual happy, curious, playful self. She’s ready to face the next obstacle that life throws her way.
Perhaps that’s why, out of everything I’ve read about the Ukraine crisis, a bit of advice that’s meant for young children was so comforting to me. Developmental psychologist Aliza Pressman offered a script for talking to little ones:
“Russia has invaded Ukraine, and as with any war, people will be hurt and killed. That’s why you’re seeing so many grown-ups who are so sad. You are safe, we are safe, but we care about the experience of people even when they are far away.”
Pressman also recommends taking a deep breath, with your hand on your heart, before talking about the crisis. That combination of things—taking a grounding, deep breath along with making a calm, reassuring assessment of the stressful situation—looks like self-compassion to me.
In many ways, practicing self-compassion is all about tending to our inner child. If we treated ourselves in the loving, caring, and patient ways that we treat our littlest humans, we’d be happier, more loving people.
There’s no doubt we could all use more self-compassion in our lives.
As with anything else, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to self-compassion. It’s ultimately something we figure out individually. But there are a few approaches that might help.
You could adopt a daily grounding practice, like writing in a gratitude or joy journal. For the past few weeks, Billy and I have been meditating 10 minutes a day, right before bed. It’s a practice that slows my breathing, calms my racing mind, and allows me to sleep more deeply.
You can focus on your physical wellbeing, by doing things like exercising, stretching, and focusing on your breath. In a surprise to no one reading a newsletter called My Sweet Dumb Brain, I often struggle to get out of my head and into my body. But, damn, is it an important thing to do. Likewise, you can get outside. Getting fresh air and reconnecting with nature is good for all of us.
You could give doomscrolling a rest. While it’s important to stay informed, we don’t gain anything from staying glued to the news or social media for hours on end.
And, finally, you could do something nice for someone else. In an interview with CNN, Stanford University associate professor of psychology Jamil Zaki shared a research-packed glimpse into why taking care of others is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.
“Helping others provides a fast track to improving our own well-being,” Zaki said. “Spending money on other people makes you happier than spending money on yourself. Supporting someone through their stress reduces your own. Spending time helping other people makes you feel like you have more time for yourself.”
Feeling happier, less stressed, and less strapped for time? I’ll take it.
The world can feel bleak. Especially now. But that doesn’t mean that we have to add to the existing suffering. We can practice self-compassion, do nice things for the people around us, and reconnect with the beauty that makes life worth living.
As my friend Emma recently told me, “If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t do the work, right?”
Right. Let’s do the work—of taking care of ourselves, and others.