This One Practice May Help Political Stress

A lot of ink has been spilled regarding the different means that folks who are opposed to the Trump administration are going to get through the next four years, politically: protests, calling representatives, and generally agitating. But there's another conversation that needs to be had: how are we going to survive a Trump presidency psychologically? Being opposed to the administration is tough at the best of times, let alone when said administration is issuing executive orders that raise troubling human rights issues and throw entire branches of government into chaos. So how do we cope?

The practice of self-compassion might help us out here. It's a concept most commonly applied to those who feel crushed by expectations and ideas of success, particularly in the hyper-achieving, "30-Under-30" atmosphere of the modern world. However, it can also be applied to the long and difficult onslaught of fighting political battles — because there needs to be a way to survive suffering, frustration, and disappointment without letting it harm one's motivation to keep pushing forward.

There will be many mistakes, problems, and defeats on this path, and self-compassion may be one of the ways we get through without beating ourselves up. Here's why the practice is something you, as a political being, should investigate.

What Self-Compassion Actually Is

One of the biggest champions of self-compassion is Dr. Kristin Neff, who published a book on the topic in 2011. She explains in her work that the concept is meant to stand in opposition to self-esteem, and contains three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

"Self-kindness" is about how we treat ourselves, most specifically in reaction to a mistake or failure. Instead of self-criticizing, feeling disgust, frustration, or shame, the approach supports being less harsh and more sympathetic to yourself. "Common humanity" is about looking at suffering as part of the "shared human experience," as Neff puts it, rather than something happening only to you and only right now — not in a way that makes you feel guilty for experiencing it, but in the sense that you're connected to other people and should feel like part of a community.

"Mindfulness," the third prong, is relatively common these days, but the concept of self-compassion applies it specifically to suffering. Being mindful, according to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley, means "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment." It's meant to draw us back to awareness of what's really happening to and around us. In terms of self-compassion, that means when we're upset or stressed, we should acknowledge our feelings and look at them directly, rather than immediately trying to "solve" them or letting them sweep us away.

What Self-Compassion Is Good For

A new study out from the University of British Columbia this week found that, for young people in stressful situations, self-compassion can turn out to be a very useful tool indeed. The study was evaluating whether self-compassion was helpful to first-year college students in their first term. And the results were pretty promising.

First-year students face a lot of change and challenging experience, from new academic standards to the isolation of living away from home for the first time. The study found that students who had a more self-compassionate outlook on life were more able to cope with the stressors of their new environment, preserve an optimistic outlook, and engage with others. It's not the only research that presents this conclusion, either; other studies back up self-compassion as a psychological tool. One 2007 study found that self-compassion helps people to react more positively to negative life events, while another conducted by Neff and others discovered that it correlates pretty strongly with higher senses of wellbeing. And a third, conducted in 2010, found that self-compassion can help reduce the amount that people with depression and anxiety ruminate and worry, which makes it a particularly useful social tool for those feeling mentally cornered by a Trump presidency.

How It Can Especially Help Us Right Now

In the past, self-compassion has primarily been used to deal with our experiences of personal failure or stress, but it's time for self-compassion to become political. For one, the aspect of common humanity — which stresses our pain is universal — is a hugely politically powerful practice in an America that is currently showing deep divides and treating various groups with incredible cruelty. For another, mindful practice and the act of self-forgiveness can help us get through the grinding, sometimes unrewarding, work of resistance. It's hard. It's hard on the body and hard on the mind; and it will likely take a toll on people faced with attempts and campaigns that don't succeed or become grueling, possibly causing them to turn on themselves and others.

A fascinating study on self-compassion in soldiers found that those who can't cope with the stress of military life tend to act impulsively and damagingly, but that this behavior was less likely to happen if they were self-compassionate. It's a signal that the suffering and poor behavior induced by stress can be mediated by self-compassion; and if anything's likely to be really stressful for the foreseeable future, it's Trump's America. Self-compassion may be a useful tool to keep in our arsenal, helping us survive knock-backs, fights that are lost, and blanket anxiety and depression. In helping us survive, it makes us more capable of getting up and fighting some more.

If you're sold, there are a wide selection of self-compassion exercises to help you get started. Many of them center around writing, from journaling your sense of self-criticism to trying to use the lens of self-compassion on negative events. Mindfulness exercises are also part of the concept, and the Center For Mindful Self-Compassion has a range of practices to help you out. Hell, there's even a TED guide.