2020 and 2021 have been an unprecedented time of turmoil, stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The novelty is long gone, and people are left feeling burnt out. As we are dealing with trauma after trauma, not just our own, but seeing the suffering of multiple people around us, we might become completely overwhelmed. After a while, we might feel numb, we might shut down, we might become more irritable and impatient, and sometimes take things out on the people we love the most.
It makes sense that when we are feeling emotional pain and distress, we might become more irritable and less patient. Behind the shield of anger and frustration, there is usually a gentler, softer emotion of sadness, longing, and a natural human desire to be loved, supported and understood. At the time of a global or national disaster, our own needs might be pushed aside in order to care for the needs of others. And although, at times, this approach might be helpful and even necessary, neglecting our needs for too long can lead to emotional burnout.
Burnout is a condition of an extreme feeling of exhaustion, which can also include depression, irritability, numbness, anxiety, sleeplessness or sleeping too much, clumsiness or making mistakes, feelings of anger, conflicts with others, job and relationship dissatisfaction, panic attacks, body tension, headaches and feelings of worthlessness.
Just as someone can be physically burned out from working too much, they can also be emotionally burned out from being exposed to a lot of trauma. Even if you do not know anyone who was directly affected by the pandemic, even if you did not lose anyone you knew, the mere impact of the horror of the present situation can have a tremendous impact on how you feel. This is why it is crucial for everyone to treat themselves with gentle self-compassion, during this difficult period of time.
Self-compassion appears to be very challenging for a lot of people and this is at least in part due to the many misconceptions about it. Most people believe that self-compassion equates to selfishness, laziness, self-pitying or overindulgence. However, research studies are finding the complete opposite effects.
When we are able to practise self-compassion, we are likely to be less selfish and more productive than if we keep pushing ourselves beyond our limits. Just think of how you treat others when you are sleep-deprived, exhausted and hungry, as compared to when you are well rested and well fed. Self-compassion is essentially an investment in your health, in your energy, in activating your inner superpowers, and in you being more effective at what you do.
Another misconception about self-compassion is that it equates to feeling sorry for yourself (self-pity) or allowing others to feel sorry for you. However, self-compassion and self-pity are actually very different from one another. Whereas the concept of self-pity implies that we are alone in feeling the way that we are feeling, the concept of self-compassion normalises our experiences in reminding us that our feelings are universal and that most people would be feeling the way that we are feeling if they were to be in the same situation.
Self-compassion is also often confused with overindulgence; however, the two are actually different from one another. Whereas indulgence is avoidance-based, self-compassion is a needed break in order to allow you to return to face your responsibilities. Hence, self-compassion is meant to support you while you’re experiencing your emotions, rather than to allow you to avoid processing them altogether. For example, taking a nap for a little while in order to rest and be able to do your work is perfectly OK, whereas sleeping for several days so that you don’t feel the pain of your loss will likely not be helpful towards your healing in the long term.
Another important form of self-compassion is practising setting boundaries with other people. Setting boundaries with others refers to the practice of saying ‘no’ to new assignments, responsibilities and requests when you are burning out and not getting enough time to rest or recover. In addition, this practice includes making requests, such as asking for support or additional assistance.
Here are a few examples of boundary setting with others:
- ‘Thank you for approaching me about taking on this project. Normally, I would be happy to take it on. However, my plate is unfortunately completely full at the moment. Thank you for understanding.’
- ‘Unfortunately, I am unable to help you today, but I can help you tomorrow.’
- ‘I am noticing that I am burning out and feeling overwhelmed. It would be very helpful to receive additional assistance or an extension with this project.’
Remember that taking care of yourself should always be a priority. Allowing yourself to feel joy does not take away from the situation itself. Your allowing yourself to feel joy (and any other emotions that you might experience) can make you more resilient to support yourself and also to show up for the rest of the world. So, go ahead. Take some time for yourself. Recharge. Power up. You’ve earned it.