Whenever people ask, “How are you?” I reflexively respond with, “Good! How ‘bout you?”
I never take time to think about how I’m truly doing. Generally, asking someone how they are is simply an easy greeting — often, people don’t care for a genuine answer. So, we tell everyone, including ourselves, that we’re good.
Even though we preface nearly every conversation with a “How’s it going?” — nobody seems to pay attention to their state of being. “Good,” we say. “Fine.” Our reflex is to lie without searching for an answer.
When I ask how you are, I want your honest answer. Really, truly, how are you? Because, in all honesty, I’m terribly, totally, utterly burnt out.
These days, so are most people I know. Every day, when I call my best friend Nandini, we describe our plans for the rest of the day. Pretty much daily, we work from when we rise to when we go to sleep. Often 18 hours later, both of us accidentally fall asleep on FaceTime calls. Nearly every student I’ve spoken to at the University of Michigan has mentioned their exhaustion with the overwhelming workload of online school. The entire world seems to be weighed down with Zoom fatigue.
Yet, we continue to chip away at our seemingly endless pile of work. We convince ourselves that we need to be a certain amount of “productive” each day. Otherwise, the day is a waste. In our quest to simulate a seemingly “normal” virtual learning experience, we sacrifice our mental health. In our haze, we spend all of our time in a single cramped place, lost in the small details and unable to see the big picture.
Nowadays, our contact with the outside world is limited. The only time we get asked how we are is when a friend or professor asks at the beginning of a conversation or class and it can feel nice to know that someone cares about us, even in the form of a trivial greeting. We search high and low for empathy in any location we can find. Without even realizing it, I’ve relied on others to ask me how I am.
My friends and I, often concerned for each other’s mental health, advise each other to take a nap, and go for a walk. However, we seldom give the same advice to ourselves. Why are we so incapable of taking care of ourselves in the way we take care of others?
The noted Australian psychologist Godfrey Barrett-Lennard has an answer: we lack empathy toward ourselves. Due to our emotional involvement with our problems, it can be challenging to understand what’s really going on. Self-empathy, a valuable skill, allows us to zoom out and view a situation with impartiality. We can figure out how we’re doing, and if we’re not doing well, we can find necessary solutions. Barrett-Lennard says the goal of therapy is to gain more empathy for oneself and others.
It would be easy to dismiss this concept as part of the recent commercialized, extremely-hyped self-care movement. However, it’s important to note that self-empathy and self-compassion are not the same things. Self-compassion (which is also extremely important) involves showing love and kindness to oneself. In contrast, self-empathy involves simply observing the patterns of emotions we experience — it sounds like a no-brainer but is actually incredibly hard to maintain.
Having the skill of self-empathy is empowering. Instead of depending on others for superficial care to (barely) check-in with yourself, you’re able to give yourself empathy and solve problems in emotionally charged situations. When you’re overwhelmed, instead of staring at a screen for hours, take a break.
When you’re tired, instead of forcing yourself to work even longer, take a nap. In our “hustle-obsessed” culture, forcing yourself to struggle is seen as a positive concept. But this has extremely harmful effects. Instead of ignoring our feelings, we should encourage people to be conscious of them and deal with complex emotions accordingly.
Commonly cited ways to get in touch with oneself include therapy, meditation, journaling and more. However, these are easier said than done — it’s important to remember that taking care of one’s mental health can sometimes require active effort. It’s necessary to ask yourself: How am I?
If you’re honest with yourself, there’s a good chance you’re doing less than stellar. Think about it. Talk it out. Write it down. Leave yourself a voice memo on your phone. And try not to hate yourself for your negative feelings or your perceived inability to do work. While figuring out one’s feelings, it’s essential to lead with empathy and not idealistic expectations.
If you’re burnt out, like most college students right now, I implore you to take a step back. In fact, I’m currently encouraging you to do the bare minimum of the work needed to get through the week. Skip a class or two if you need to — forcing yourself to go to class exhausted won’t help your learning. When I mention this to friends, they guiltily say, “I would, but I’ve already been slacking off this week…” — good for you for taking time off for yourself! If you’re still stressed, I’m begging you to take more time off to recharge. To force yourself to be productive while burnt-out is unrealistic.
When we step off the treadmill, we feel incredibly guilty. However, it’s important to ask yourself: Who is this guilt benefitting? (Hint: it doesn’t look like the guilt is good for you). Your insecurity over how much work you’ve completed that day has been perpetuated by companies obsessed with “productivity” to maximize profit — by creating a culture where destroying yourself to please your boss feels necessary. We must unlearn this mindset. Stop expecting yourself to operate at full capacity at all times, especially during a pandemic — seriously, show yourself some empathy.
In this age, we measure our self-worth by how “productive” we were earlier in the day. I urge you to rebel and see yourself as worth more than a machine that cranks out essay after essay. Distance yourself from your work — you deserve a break.
Put away your laptop, put on a mask and take a walk. If it’s raining, even better! Get absolutely drenched, laugh about it and then ask yourself how you feel.
Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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