Compassion Over Comparison
I started planning this blog post three months ago. I’m telling you this not to highlight my lack of discipline, nor to point out that I’m a terrible blogger who can’t stick to a vague posting plan, but to illustrate how compassion is always more powerful than comparison.
My long-term mental health problems have always been erratic and influenced by external events, so suffice to say I have struggled in lockdown. A lot. The coping strategies I worked so hard to put in place disintegrated. Losing my gym class routine meant I couldn’t structure my time as easily as usual, especially as I found it difficult to replace my strength training and incorporate regular running sessions, which has had a negative impact on my energy levels, anxiety and depression. Having a dog to look after is the main reason I get out of bed at all and walking him is the only consistent exercise I have managed throughout lockdown.
Lockdown seems to amplify people’s behaviour, for better or for worse, inviting us to draw comparisons between ourselves and others. It’s easy to judge and criticise, particularly when we see other people exhibiting behaviour we consider irresponsible or, on the flip side, when we feel intimidated by their achievements. We can also lose sight of the simple truth that we are not alone: our sacrifices may seem insignificant next to those of doctors, nurses and carers, but we are trying our best. Instead of berating ourselves or others for ‘doing lockdown wrong’, it’s more constructive to demonstrate compassion.
I wish I could be more like those people who have used lockdown as an opportunity to help others, work towards important goals or adopt new skills and interests. When I see them on television or social media, I feel inspired and pleased for them – but I can also feel intimidated and overwhelmed. They are doing these amazing things while I am failing at the basics: cooking meals, cleaning and working from home (which is how I work most of the time anyway, regardless of lockdown). I’m frequently losing large chunks of time to depression and anxiety, which has the added ‘bonus’ of reminding me of my worst periods of mental illness and causes more depression and anxiety as I worry about returning to those times.
How did I deal with my mental health deteriorating? I fell back on old habits. Hard.
I beat myself up; mostly in the metaphorical sense, but I also self-harmed more than is typical for me nowadays. I added tasks to my to-do list as ‘encouragement’ and felt more of a loser than ever when I didn’t complete them. I told myself I was selfish, lazy, useless. What right did I have to feel depressed and anxious? None of my friends or relatives have been killed by Covid-19. I wasn’t forced to go into hospital and care for coronavirus patients. In fact, my day to day life didn’t look very different.
Of course, I was ignoring the most obvious fact: I have chronic mental health issues. Having a ‘right’ to feel anxious or depressed is irrelevant. It’s strange to find I continue to internalise these stigmatising views surrounding mental illness, despite attempting to raise awareness and eradicate the stigma. Other people might be in worse situations, but that doesn’t mean my situation is easy to handle or pleasant to experience. My illnesses are not conscious choices; although every day I try to make decisions which help me to manage and improve my mental health, I’m not always able to use coping strategies.
Accepting this was the key to finally writing this blog post, along with completing other tasks which were lingering on my to-do list. Trying to bully someone out of depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem doesn’t work. More often than not, it makes the person feel worse. I realised I had been doing the worst thing anyone can do to somebody experiencing mental illness: telling myself to ‘snap out of it’.
I didn’t use those words; I didn’t need to. Instead, I put pressure on myself to do more, achieve more, be more.
The effect was the same. My depression and anxiety got worse as my to-do list grew longer. I compounded the issue by doubling down on the pressure whenever I was able to do anything, adding more phrases I tell people they should never say to someone who has mental health problems:
‘You did the same thing yesterday, why can’t you do it again today?’
‘It’s only a small task, so quit whining and get on with it.’
‘Why are you such a screw-up?’
I’m not only my own worst critic – I can turn into every bully I ever met, with added potency because I know what will cause me the most pain.
I would like to say I had an epiphany as a result of deep inner work or meditation, but the reality is messier: I started feeling ill. After a few weeks of abdominal pain and bloating (I’m investigating potential causes, but suspect it’s IBS rearing its ugly head again), I felt so rotten over one weekend that I realised it’s amazing I was still getting out of bed and walking the dog every day. Anything else I managed to do would be a bonus.
Giving myself permission to do nothing has made me more productive. It’s not a miraculous change, but it’s enough.
Treating myself with compassion means I’m not starting each task from a weakened position, having been bullied into submission. I have permission to do nothing, so anything I’m able to do is an achievement – in most instances, a partially completed task which I can finish later is better than making no progress. Reducing the pressure means I’m not adding to my anxiety and often enables me to manage my mental health in more effective (and pleasant) ways. I can use more of my coping strategies, which often creates a positive spiral as my mood improves and enables me to do more activities – both work and leisure.
Self-compassion is often characterised as giving yourself a break, but it’s also about movement – moving in the direction which you want, towards what is best for you. For me, goal setting and planning are important coping strategies. During my worst periods of depression, I believe I have no future and abandon all goals, so they are signs of hope. I think my response to lockdown was to pile more pressure on myself because it’s a powerful reminder of my most intense experiences of depression. I chose anxiety because I was beginning to slip back into the abyss and was trying to claw my way out.
I had strayed from using my goals as ropes to help me climb out of depression; they became boulders which threatened to roll down and crush me.
Unfortunately, this is a familiar pattern. Under ‘normal’ circumstances I have more support systems in place and can access a wider range of coping strategies, but the pandemic has narrowed my choices. Lockdown seems to invite comparison, because social media and television have become my sole windows to the world. I compare myself to people who seem to be thriving in lockdown, wondering why I can’t do the same. The people struggling with lockdown are often missing ‘normal’ lives more enjoyable, successful and valuable than mine. Everyone seems to be better than me.
Comparison and compassion are difficult bedfellows. When demonstrating a compassionate attitude towards a friend, for example, comparing them to others is rarely helpful. There are many variables which make people’s experiences directly incomparable, including different resources and obstacles. Comparisons also tend to involve criticism and judgement, whether or not this is intended, which has little value when someone is struggling. Compassion, in contrast, involves trying to understand someone’s experience, including how they feel, and developing empathy. It’s about treating them with kindness and respect.
I had not been treating myself with kindness or respect. I confused pressuring myself to be more productive with taking responsibility for my actions and changing my life, while ignoring my greater responsibility: managing my mental health as a top priority, which allows me to work towards my goals. Skewed logic is one of my specialities.
At first glance, giving myself permission to do nothing might appear to be skewed logic, but the opposite is true. It removes me from the pressure to compete, to compare, which means I spend more time working on tasks and projects which are right for me. Often, this involves prioritising my mental health for a few days or weeks so I’m better equipped to meet a deadline. The alternative is continuing to place more pressure on myself every day, which is neither conducive to doing my best work nor good for my health. It’s probably no coincidence that I have reached this point after completing an extremely stressful academic year.
Noticing when I compare myself to others can be an early warning that I’m not treating myself with compassion. It’s a sign I need to ease off the pressure and prioritise my mental health. After all, whenever I’m supporting a friend who is struggling, there’s no question: I always choose compassion over comparison.