Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
One of the first things we learn as children is to be kind to others. From the playgrounds of preschool all the way through adulthood, kindness becomes a core tenet of our humanity, and while showing kindness toward others comes easily for most, the true challenge lies in showing kindness toward ourselves. This is behavior is known as self-compassion, and it stems from the way that we talk to and about ourselves. The opposite of self-criticism and judgment, self-compassion evokes a more tender and supportive response to our struggles, shortcomings, and difficulties, and removes the need to constantly analyze ourselves which often creates unnecessary anxiety and fear.
As a skill to be learned, increased self-kindness comes with myriad benefits. In fact, research supports that self-compassion limits negative self-talk and helps promote self-love. Similarly, studies support that those who practice self-compassion have higher levels of optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness.
While the benefits of self-compassion are clear, it becomes less clear how to practice it in our everyday lives. To better understand how to increase our self-compassion, we turn to enhancing its three key pillars: mindfulness, acknowledgment of humanity, and self-care.
Mindfulness. In our day-to-day lives, we have a constant running commentary that positively and negatively evaluates our actions, often subconsciously. This behavior is associated with a part of our brain known as the “default mode network,” or a large-scale brain network of interacting regions, which activate when an individual is involved in self-referential tasks. In addition, enhanced activity in the default mode network has been found to be linked to depression and anxiety. The strong correlation between hyperactivity in the default mode network and lower rates of happiness prompted scientists to question if there was a way to decrease the activity in the default mode network, and hopefully, improve people’s quality of life. What they discovered is that meditation practitioners were less likely to experience the “mind-wandering” that the default mode network is responsible for, and more able to enjoy the present moment which resulted in greater feelings of happiness and contentment. By being in the present moment, they are also in a better position to be able to completely understand the truth in things and be aware of their subconscious, biological tendency to self-analyze. While little research exists on the possible relationship between self-compassion and the default mode network, studies have shown that when both self-compassion and mindfulness are practiced they have a greater, positive effect on well-being than either one by itself. This is because mindfulness grants us the awareness to notice when we are struggling, and without this initial realization, we would not be able to utilize self-compassion to alleviate our suffering or address our present needs.
Acknowledgment of our common humanity. Many times, when we mess up, it feels as if we are the only ones struggling in the world. We send ourselves into a bitter isolation and refuse to accept the fact that we aren’t perfect, wishing that we could just “be better” or “get it right.” But, that’s not realistic — we will fall down, many times, and that is a normal part of striving and being human. Trying to resist this can transform into extreme perfectionism, which according to a study conducted by Paul L. Hewitt at the University of British Columbia, is linked to high rates of depression and anxiety. Instead of avoiding the truth of our humanity and letting our self-criticism and inner resentment fester, we can embrace our imperfections and realize that we are not alone on this journey. This redirecting of our perspective is known as cognitive appraisal, a strategy that changes the emotional response to an event by reinterpreting the meaning of the emotional stimulus. For example, when we miss an important meeting and start to berate ourselves for being unorganized, we can change our viewpoint to realize that mistakes happen, forgive ourselves, and focus on being more prepared next time. Although the situation is unfortunate, it is simply an opportunity to interpret our mistakes as a way for growth in our ever-improving lives rather than bask in our incompetence. By understanding that we don’t have to be perfect and reminding ourselves that nobody else is either, we can approach self-improvement as a continual process and let go of the relentless pressure we put on ourselves to constantly excel, opening us up to more challenge-seeking opportunities and minimizing our self-criticism.
Self-care. Although loosely defined, self-care refers to the ability to address one’s needs in order to increase well-being through internal and external practices, such as physical exercise, spiritual development, social engagement, and psychological support. Studies have shown that frequent self-care is positively correlated with overall well-being, and by being more attuned to our feelings and giving ourselves what we truly in the need in the moment, we are better able to incorporate self-care practices that lead to greater health and happiness. However, often times instead of caring for ourselves when we are struggling, we see ourselves as worthy of punishment. A bad grade signifies that we need to study even more, rather than allows ourselves to have a relaxing night in order to de-stress. This type of mindset is counterintuitive to what we actually want to achieve; it cultivates an atmosphere that demands perfection, or else. However, since we already know that perfection is unattainable, it pulls us into a cycle of self-degradation and retribution, making us fearful of our own selves. By cultivating a caring voice when we face shortcomings, we can fill ourselves with love while working towards improvement — rather than feeling worthless while simultaneously becoming stagnant in our development.
We are all deserving of love and care, no matter what path of life we are on. Whatever you have dealt with in the past does not define what your future holds. You are enough. And the best way to start believing this is to practice these truths on yourself — treat yourself with love, treating yourself with care, and treat yourself like you truly deserve to be treated. There is so much love to go around, so make sure that you are giving it to yourself.
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis