July 28, 2021

Self-Care versus Self-Improvement: Don’t Compare your “Lockdown Productivity” with Others.


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I’m part of an online community for people who’ve decided to go alcohol-free (AF).

It’s a mixture of people who have been both physically and mentally dependent on the demon drink. People offer each other support, share their experiences, and give others advice if they request it. There’s rarely any judgment toward others and people can be completely open about their journey right now, even if they’ve fallen off the wagon in a really spectacular way.

It’s a caring community that gives people a place to be themselves and become stronger. It’s wonderful to see.

There is, however, one thing I’ve noticed that is done with the best of intentions. People share details of how their lives have improved. They explain how they no longer wake up with a hangover, how they’re more present with their families and friends, how their mental health has improved, and how they now can concentrate and recall details in ways they couldn’t do before.

But more than anything, when detailing any advances, there is a real emphasis on what positive things people have done with their lives since they first reclaimed their time from their hangovers. They list the businesses they’ve started, new educational programmes they’ve enrolled in (or PhDs they’ve completed), the communities they’ve volunteered in, the training they’re taking to become nurses, how they’re able to work more hours than before, or how they’ve been promoted or got new amazing jobs.

This isn’t so dissimilar to people who are talking online about the pandemic and lockdown. Everyone is keen, understandable, and is looking for the positives that have come out of this terrible period for humanity.

So many people, both online and in the real world, will explain, much like they do in the AF online community, how they’ve used this unexpected time at home for the better. Maybe they’ve redecorated their house, or turned their garden into a space to grow fruits and vegetables, or converted their loft into a meditation room, or thrown novels away so that they can read so many non-fiction books to help them expand their knowledge, and finally, there’s always the physical transformation through a new exercise programme type of stories that people love to share.

This doesn’t just happen online or in real life. In the United Kingdom, both on TV and over the radio, there’s often a person being interviewed who has used their time to their advantage and turned around their situation for the positive.

Don’t get me wrong. These types of stories that people share are often amazing and, occasionally, they can bring tears to my eyes. They are definitely inspirational. They motivate me to do better, to sit at my laptop and write my book, or to go for a run when, maybe, I don’t want to. And yes, that is all good.

But we need to remember that not everyone is capable of such transformations and these stories can have a negative effect on them. Maybe you’re one such person who grimaces when you read about some else’s lockdown success story, and you compare it with your own achievements?

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From talking to people, I know that many individuals, rather than being encouraged by the stories of other people starting something new or being better than they were, find it difficult to hear them. It makes them feel as though they are shrinking because they are standing still or that because they haven’t done any of those things, they are a failure.

Maybe you are someone who has used their entire energy to just get from waking up through going to bed without having a breakdown? Or maybe all your focus has been on not doing damaging things to yourself, such as using alcohol to dull the emotions that arise in you?

Can you see that while everyone else is making grand changes to their lives, you are just really tired and hanging on but still wanting to do the same?

Are there times when instead of giving yourself some self-care, you try to do “something,” because you can see that everyone else is, and when that doesn’t work out, you feel worse than you did before?

Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to try and do what others do. You need to do what is right for you right now. If all your energy has been used up while trying to survive, and you did, give yourself a pat on the back because that is amazing. It’s a win.

The Buddha taught us that grasping for things to be different than they are right now is the path of suffering. And trying to do what you aren’t currently ready for will only lead you to dissatisfaction at the very least, and real mental anguish at the worst.

The Buddha also taught us that the path away from suffering is by letting all those thoughts and ideas go and accepting what is. If today isn’t a day when you can think up a business idea, let alone write a business plan, then accept that and do what you need to right now to honour yourself.

Maybe you’ve no desire to go back to education—maybe it’s not for you, then don’t force yourself into a future that isn’t for you. Accept that you’ve got another path. It’s strange but when you learn to sit with what is without pushing it away and become friends with life, even when it’s bad, then funny things happen and new unexpected possibilities come up.

It’s also important to remember that even people who appear to be mega productive all the time still have days off. Depending on how they respond to an off day also determines if they push themselves into suffering or away from it.

On a good day, I will wake up early, meditate for half an hour, go to the gym or for a run, do some work, and then, do some writing for my book afterward. It’s a full day schedule during which I ride that wave of enthusiasm.

Yet on other days, that isn’t what I can do. Occasionally, more often than I’d like to admit, I just want to put my feet up. But if I force myself to “perform,” then everything is done badly. I feel tired, stressed, and, possibly, my age-old anxiety will arise. And, just as the Buddha predicted, I wouldn’t really have a good time. Instead, I suffer and the day is really wasted because I wasn’t in my life as it was at that moment.

But if I recognise and accept that today is just not going to be productive, then I don’t beat myself up when my work isn’t as good as it usually is. I don’t force myself to write afterward or go for that run I avoided in the morning because I wasn’t up for it. If I fancy the distraction of Battlefield V on my PS4 after work, then I’m going to let myself have that break and take great joy in some online violence (although at my age, the highly reactive teenagers who are online run rings around me). It’s unproductive time, but I honoured myself as I was in that moment. I’m just as unproductive as when I force myself into writing that extra page or running when I shouldn’t have.

But when I accept things as they are right now and don’t push against my reality, then I don’t suffer. It is as it is and, whether productive or not, I was present for my life on that day.

And that’s important to understand.

It’s great that many people are doing so well and finding out about themselves. I’m truly grateful that they have had this opportunity to make important changes in their lives, much like I have. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s always like that for everyone else because it’s not.

It is alright to be you as you are right now. To be as productive or unproductive as you can be in this moment. You don’t need to start a business, go back to education, or do other projects to get something out of your life.

If you got through today when you were worried you couldn’t without collapsing into despair, then today was a winner. This is especially true if you manage to remain present with it instead of wishing your life away.

To me, you are as much a winner as that friend from school who started their own business and told everyone about it on Facebook.

So be kind to yourself, do you, and celebrate everyone else who does the same.


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