How to give yourself — and others — a break

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Be kind to yourself. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Few would disagree that this advice would lead to a life filled with less fighting and more empathy.

So, why don’t we always practice compassion?

American culture can promote and celebrate competitiveness, where it’s easy to never be satisfied and think that we should be doing more. We set high standards for ourselves, and sometimes put similar expectations on others, and believe that, “If I’m doing it, why can’t you do it?” says Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In that dynamic, no one gets any benefit of the doubt. Social media can exacerbate the division, with people posting their positions without being interested in a different perspective. It’s also a place where we get to see how great everyone else appears in their photographs. We end up using bits of information (that may or may not be true) to judge our insides by someone else’s outsides, says Melissa Brodrick, ombudsperson at Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health, adding, “We can be our own worst critics.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer. It has created enormous daily stress and uncertainty, compelling us to show empathy for others, because we need some for ourselves. But it’s difficult to be constantly thoughtful and considerate. We get tired and hungry. We have deadlines or children doing remote school. We get thrown off and reach a breaking point. “Welcome to the human race,” Booth Watkins says.

Learning self-compassion can help with stress

Successfully navigating the fluctuations of normal life stress compounded with COVID stress means we need to learn and practice daily self-compassion. When we’re kind and supportive to ourselves, we can better control anxiety and stay out of the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol, a stress hormone, drops. Blood pressure decreases. Heart rate normalizes. And when we’re self-compassionate more often than not, we end up remaining in an overall healthier, calmer state.

Self-compassion can be built. It takes focusing on what we can control, being disciplined in order to establish new habits that widen our perspective and foster acceptance, and also realizing that we must practice these new habits, which become easier to call upon but are never automatic.

Five ways to practice giving and receiving a break

Be grateful. You want to recognize positive things. Some are big, like a blue sky; some are less obvious, like getting the chance to make a mistake and learn. Try noting four or five moments a day, and that eventually becomes your playlist. “When you take the time for the things you’re grateful for, there’s less time to worry about the negative things,” Booth Watkins says.

Let go. People sometimes get into trouble by overestimating their importance. It may lead to never taking vacations, refusing to delegate responsibilities, or becoming more involved than necessary in stressful situations. Brodrick says that one option is to write your concern on a piece of paper, put it out of sight, and try to forget about it. After a week, re-read what you’ve written and take stock of what actually happened. You may find that, “Oh, it resolved itself,” and realize that you can let some things go and trust they may get addressed without you, she says.

Take time to really listen. You don’t have to like or agree with what’s being said. But when you listen to understand, and show the person that you listened by asking genuine questions and summarizing back what was said, animosity and defenses can go down for the speaker. That can cause the other person to try to listen in the same way. “It can be the beginning of building trust in stressful situations,” says Brodrick, who adds that it may be helpful to reflect on how it feels when you’ve felt truly heard and understood — and when you haven’t. Often the former can make you feel respected, validated, empowered, connected. “And who wouldn’t want those things?” she says.

Show curiosity. Tied in with listening, it’s again not about taking on anyone’s feelings. You’re genuinely trying to answer, “What might be going on with this person?” You can ask specific question about what the person does, where he or she is from, and how a conclusion was reached, but even if it’s an internal process, the result is similar. You’ve gone from judge to detective in trying to piece together a story. It’s no longer about what this person is doing to you. It’s just trying to figure out what they’re doing, Booth Watkins says.

Recruit a friend. Much like having a walking or workout partner, another person can make you show up, and help you be accountable. It’s the same for your emotional well-being. Set up an agreement that you’ll do a daily check-in, with something as simple as, “How’s it going?” You could also make it a challenge to take a five-minute break or listen to a song, and report when it happened with the tag line, “Have you done it yet?” Sometimes friendly pressure is the missing ingredient. “You don’t have to do it alone. We’re not on this planet by ourselves,” Booth Watkins says.

Even with these steps, it’s good to remember that stress doesn’t completely disappear, nor should it. “Some anxiety is a natural reaction. It drives us, but when we couple it with judgment and shame, it’s no longer helpful,” Booth Watkins says.

And it also helps to remind yourself that perfection is not the goal. It’s similar to trying to stick to exercise: if you skip one day, it doesn’t discount everything that you’ve accomplished previously. It just means that you missed that day. With empathy, you’re trying to develop a routine and more emotional “muscle.” You’ll still have moments when you’re off and not as self-compassionate as you’d like, but with practice, you’ll also be better at forgiving yourself. “We are all works in progress,” Brodrick says.

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