March 2020 marked such a significant period of change. The whole world was plunged into a collective health crisis. At the same time, the world was also plunged into a socio-cultural crisis fueled by racism. Xenophobic violence and discrimination have always been a topical issue in our society. However, the pandemic has started a resurgence of racism that has turned into a hungry battle for some relief. Speaking as a person of color, it almost seems like there is no escape in these intensive environments that are our current reality. Racism is this otherworldly, large socio-cultural and economic construct that can often seem bigger than our own individual experiences. And furthermore, racism and mental healthand intricately connected.
However, taking an active step back, I’m here to tell you that your experiences matter. If you struggle with racism and your mental health, this experience is valid. If you have ever felt invalidated in your experiences, this invalidation is not a reflection of you. Affirming yourself with compassion and grace, especially in moments of external invalidation, is such an essential part of fighting racism with self-compassion. Self-validation and self-compassion are easier said than done. Dealing with racism is difficult, but possible. This begs the question: how can we combat racism through self-compassion?
The impact of racism on mental health
Racist rhetoric against people of color has been more present and visible since the start of the pandemic. An example of this present-day racism can be seen in statements such as, “Go back to your country” or in anti-AAPI rhetoric such as “Kung-flu virus” or “Chinese flu”. Racism has also been more overt and confrontational in recent years, with many people of color facing violent discrimination. In this heightened environment, racial trauma has become truly intense and even more difficult to deal with.
Suffice it to say that this level of trauma also had an increased impact on mental health. This cultural climate can cause more symptoms of depression and anxiety. One may even find themselves struggling with anger, shame, guilt, sadness, or a sense of helplessness. The intrusiveness of these feelings can cause more internal conflict, especially when it comes to maintaining a sense of community and belonging.
The severity of racial trauma and its effects on mental health is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. In no way is this article intended to invalidate the complexity of these experiences. Constant exposure, discussion and debate may not always help a person struggling to cope with such a stressful environment. With this in mind, many people find it difficult to cope with such an intense and sensitive time in our society. There are so many pressures and stressors in everyday life. Dealing with situational difficulties like confrontational racism can be overwhelming, especially when we see it happen every day. The rise of racist rhetoric can create more internal conflict with ourselves. With all hope and kindness, I invite those who read this article to consider the one thing that can help validate your experiences, enhance your mental well-being, and help you confront racism. Think of it as your secret weapon: self -compassion . Read more about racial trauma and its impact on mental health
What is self-compassion?
So, what is compassion? What does it mean to show compassion to yourself? Being compassionate and being compassionate are two different forms of caring. Compassion is feeling empathy for another’s pain and being motivated to relieve that pain. This relief can be seen by anyone – friends, family, even strangers! Compassion is also shown through acts of kindness or giving emotional space to those who may need it. To be self -Sympathetic is to feel empathy for your own selfto suffer and show yourself the same kindness you would give to others. Self-compassion is an inner strength that requires the means to be kind to yourself in unfair situations and interactions with the outside world. Now that we understand what it means to be compassionate, how can we intentionally hold that space for ourselves? How can we build resilience in our self-compassion?
It’s important to see self-compassion as something we all have innately as human beings. This is a skill you already have – recognizing its existence is the hard part! Racism is a construct that aims to tear down any inner strengths you already have. It is in being kind to yourself that we begin to unconsciously rely on these inner forces to confront and combat racism. In other words, the act of self-compassion is consciously allowing yourself to depend on your inner strengths.
Giving yourself warmth, understanding and acceptance when you feel hurt and pain is self-compassion. We have no control over how other people may react to these situations. The only control we have is how we respond. A compassionate response involves taking care of ourselves, reflecting on these experiences, becoming self-aware, and building resilience. Once we understand these facts about self-compassion, then we can continue to build on that foundation through the following concepts:
Being aware of your own awareness is easier said than done! To clarify this further, we build self-awareness by attending to our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and our environment from a self-feeding perspective. Practicing acceptance for our current circumstances means honoring our thoughts and feelings without judgment! This is associated with giving ourselves the warmth and care we deserve during difficult times in our everyday lives.
This brings us back to our secret weapon: self-compassion. In this practice, we are able to show respect to ourselves while processing these tough moments. We can acknowledge their presence, how they might affect you, let it be in its own present moment, and then let it go. Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness, as this will defeat the purpose of mindfulness itself. You can try mindfulness at any point or through guided meditations. Give yourself extra patience throughout this process and as much time as you need.
Affirmations are short but powerful statements that are great at combating the internalization of negative thoughts. As the connection between racism and mental health can be maladaptive and intense, using affirmations gives back your own sense of control. Affirmations reinforce the boundaries placed between yourself/your identity and racist rhetoric. An example of an affirmation might look like: “I am free from other people’s judgments” or “I am not a stereotype.” You have the freedom to be creative and use as many affirmations as you like. Self-affirmation empowers you to use self-compassion through a humanizing lens. Through this, you learn to practice more love and kindness towards yourself.
Sense of community
As I already mentioned, the relationship between racism and mental health can be mentally and emotionally taxing. One factor is the effect of racism on the sense of community. Remember, racism is designed and used to deconstruct your own internal and external communities. Know that while these experiences are painful, they do not require you to isolate yourself. You are not alone in your suffering and pain. Reach out to your social support system: your friends, family, teachers, therapist, or even your pet!
Others are there to help you fight racism as a collective group, either by standing up to racism or by taking an active stand. It’s hard to fight racism alone. Rely on others to help you in this battle. You may have more in common with them than you think. If you are struggling after discrimination, allow yourself to let other people who care about you. Allowing yourself to receive care and compassion from others only models how you can also offer care and compassion to yourself.
What is not self-compassion
There is no right or wrong way to show kindness to yourself. It is important to note that being compassionate can be a natural defense for marginalized people, especially since racism intends to defeat this kindness. Racism is an act of harm. For example, the statement I mentioned earlier, “Go back to your country!” it carries a negative connotation of dehumanization. It indicates to the other person that they do not belong to their respective country and that they are not welcome just because of their racial identity. The statement can allow the person receiving it to feel that intense level of anxiety, anger at themselves, or increase that feeling of ‘weakness’ or ‘weakness’.
People use racist rhetoric to convince the other person that they shouldn’t be kind to themselves because they “don’t deserve it.” Some of the effects of coping with racial injustice can include negative self-talk and intrusive automatic thoughts. If this process of internalization resonates with you, know that self-compassion is not retreating or surrendering to this experience. Self-compassion does not imply weakness, nor does it allow for self-pity. It does not involve separating ourselves from other people or living in blissful ignorance of other people who may be having similar experiences. Rather, self-compassion is the act of humanizing these feelings. Showing compassion to yourself is normalizing thisall people deserve safety, care, growth, clarity and understanding.
Self-compassion, today more than ever
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, so many people have suffered and seen others suffer. Many people lost loved ones and had to suffer through grief. At the same time, our culture began to change, especially in relation to racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter (#BLM) and Stop Asian Hate. More than ever, people have found themselves in emotional states of sadness, anger, frustration. The feelings listed are not all that encompass this cultural shift, but they mean a widespread and heightened level of suffering that can feel very self-destructive and unquestionable.
This is a type of suffering with significant xenophobic and racist undertones that is more present and evident every day. When you do not experience kindness from others, it is important to give that kindness to yourself. Self-compassion is an inner strength that exists within all people, and it is something we can always rely on to confront and fight racial injustice. If you feel like you still aren’t sure how to show yourself compassion, let me be the first to show you.
As an Asian American woman living in New York City, I often face racial microaggressions and anti-Asian discrimination. To show myself compassion, I tell myself the following affirmations during difficult times: “I am not their words or their hate. I am more than what they say I am. I am enough. And I affirm and acknowledge that this is sufficient.