Using self-compassion to return to studying after distance learning
Long-term distance learning has affected many students’ perception of themselves as students. For some, distance learning enabled flexible progress in their studies, but for a large number of students it made studying more difficult than usual. For this reason, your perception of yourself as a student may also have become negative: repeated experiences that you are unable to cope, have no competence or energy, may have taken away your motivation and enthusiasm to study. With these bad experiences, you may have adopted a story about yourself, a self-narrative, that tells you that you are a poor student, that you cannot concentrate or that you should not even try. No wonder if you feel discouraged.
Self-narrative guides your observations and choices
A person’s mind strives to maintain coherent entities, which is why the self-narrative strengthens itself. It directs you to notice things that support it and to make related choices, ignoring other options. For example, if your understanding of yourself as a student is negative, you will only see your failures, you may decide to postpone your studies or skip challenging courses. These observations and choices guided by the self-narrative strengthen the narrative further: you are not having experiences of success, and this makes you even more convinced that you are a useless student. On the other hand, a negative study-related self-narrative may also lead to excessive performing if your assessment of yourself as a student is tied to grades or credits. If you build on them, your assessment is very vulnerable and can lead to paralysis.
When your self-narrative is negative, people often urge you to strengthen your self-esteem. However, some have started questioning the benefits of self-esteem and it has also been found difficult to change. Attempts to change often only strengthen one’s weak self-esteem and may connect it more closely to the wobbly surface of performing and external feedback. Instead of self-esteem, it would be more important to try to strengthen self-compassion.
While self-esteem consists of assessments of ourselves, self-compassion consists of ways in which we treat ourselves, especially when faced with setbacks. Instead of grabbing ourselves by the neck, we grab ourselves by the hand.
Strengthening self-compassion and detaching yourself from your self-narrative are easier said than done. It is important to remember that in order to move towards them, you do not need to change your thoughts or your self-narrative, but add
- awareness of your thoughts and feelings
- acceptance towards your thoughts and feelings
- awareness of your assessments and what matters to you, and
- acts that match your values and what is important to you
By better recognising your thoughts and feelings, you face them with acceptance instead of fighting them, you crystallise your values and increase connected actions. Instead of your self-narrative, you are in charge of your life.
When you feel more compassionate towards yourself, the negative self-narrative may not disappear, but it will no longer guide you like before. Instead of avoiding studying, for example, it is easier to spring into action, when you recognise that your perception of yourself as a useless student is not the truth. It does not need to stop you from studying even just a little bit. At the same time, you can start building a new, more functional self-narrative, one step at a time. It also keeps itself going, with favourable consequences.
In matters of self-narrative and self-compassion related to studying, you can turn to your educational institution’s study psychologist.
Kiia Kilponen, educational psychologist, University of Oulu