Self-care in the midst of crisis
TRACIE PAPE shares her ideas and experience with MAMATA VENKAT on the importance of acknowledging feelings and practicing self-care and self-compassion during the pandemic and beyond.
Q: Hello Tracie. We’ve had many conversations in the past, and I’m really glad for them. Looking back, I can pinpoint very significant moments that were turning points for me. They were often preceded by negative moments, but they all led to where I am right now. What was a transformative moment in your life that really shaped your values, your ideals, that helped you to grow and evolve, and that led you to where you are right now?
TP: When I was twenty I lost my mom, and I really struggled with mental health following that loss. You know, there is a definition of grief: love with nowhere to go. I didn’t really talk about it. I came from a Southside Irish family. We all pretended we were doing just fine, and I think I was searching.
When I was in the Peace Corps, I was struggling although I had an incredible time, and then I went to India and learned how to meditate. And talking to my mom in her final days, she shared a gift with me – that everything we need is within us. It was really a guiding light. I think in those years I suffered mostly in silence, and I think maybe that is why I chose a career in mental health – to destigmatize it, to allow us to talk about what we’re struggling with. Once you open up, it helps, and you feel like you’re not alone.
There was uncertainty figuring out what was important to me and how I wanted to live my life. In retrospect, I think it was a defining event for me. Nothing is certain, loss can happen, especially now.
I suffered mostly in silence,
and I think maybe that is why
I chose a career in mental health – to destigmatize it,
to allow us to talk about what we’re struggling with.
Once you open up, it helps,
and you feel like you’re not alone.
Q: I can imagine that the stigma surrounding mental health back then probably made it really difficult to figure out how best to manage it.
TP: And there are different cultures and different families. Southside Irish families really don’t talk a lot about feelings, but I’ve found that every culture has its own stigmas or biases, and we’re really just facets of the same stone of suffering. There is so much similarity, and we all feel it is unique to us.
Q: Was meditation the only tool that helped you, or were there other tools that you used during that period?
TP: Meditation helped me a lot, and as I’ve grown I’ve expanded what I use to help ground me, to cope. Meditation is important, but I also have a whole toolbox of things.
Q: It’s like a cocktail of tools we can utilize. Aside from meditation, I go to therapy, I call friends, I sing, I try to exercise. I have a long list of things that have helped me. What are some tools that have helped the most?
TP: I love calling it a cocktail! It’s much better than a toolkit.
There are so many things that we can do. Right now, in the face of uncertainty, I think we are all riding the waves of anxiety. Whether we’re worried about our personal safety, or that of those we love, or strangers, when anxiety is heightened our muscles tense and our breathing gets shallow. It’s really hard to feel grounded in that state.
I was a slow convert to breathing. Breathing is a miraculous way to reduce anxiety. There are two simple tools that I use and teach: The first is triangle breathing. You do a three or four count inhale, three or four count pause or exhale, and then a three or four count exhale or pause. And doing that every hour, you reset, you relax your muscles. You can’t have an anxiety attack in a relaxed body. So if you feel tension somewhere, breathe and imagine that tension going out when you breathe. The Navy Seals really like boxed breathing, which is a three or four count inhale, three or four count pause, three or four count exhale. So those are simple techniques that we can do when we’re riding the wave of anxiety or fear.
The first is triangle breathing.
You do a three or four count inhale,
three or four count pause or exhale,
and then a three or four count exhale or pause.
And doing that every hour,
you reset, you relax your muscles.
Another one that I really like is progressive muscle relaxation, and you can find videos on YouTube to guide you through. Start with the muscles in your feet. Tighten them for ten seconds, then relax for six. Go through your whole body, and when you’re done there will be a much deeper sense of relaxation. It’s an excellent one to do before bed.
Q: I also like something that we have in Heartfulness called Left Nostril Breathing, where you close your right nostril with your thumb, and breathe in and out ten times through your left nostril. It activates your parasympathetic nervous system, so it reduces stress and anxiety, allowing you to be in a relaxed state. Like you said, you can’t have an anxiety attack or feel those moments of panic when your body is relaxed.
TP: That’s another great one. There are so many tools.
Q: What are some other ones that you recommend?
TP: Those are the physical ones, because what helps when you’re stressed is that you want to relax your muscle body. I really like one that’s called “Mindfulness of Present Emotion.” It is stepping back, noticing what you’re feeling. If I feel fear or anxiety, I notice it without judgment. I notice that I feel really afraid and allow that. Sometimes our breath gets shallow, our muscles tighten, we don’t know what we’re feeling, we plow through and maybe rush through something. So relax, then notice what you’re feeling.
That’s the bridge to my two favorite skills that are more state-of-being skills: self-compassion and gratitude. Kristin Neff and Tara Brach talk about how important it is to be as kind to ourselves as we are to others. We’re very often worried about other people, but we’re hard on ourselves. We would never say the things to other people that we say to ourselves: “Why am I so stressed?” “Why am I not getting things done?” Allowing the same compassion that we offer to others to ourselves, and remembering to be grateful, really help with anxiety and help us feel connected.
But we have to go through the other steps to get there. When you’re feeling anxious, you’re like, “What do I have to feel grateful for?” Once you relax and settle down, and are kind to yourself, almost always something will pop up.
Q: I still struggle with self-compassion. Why do you think we can be compassionate toward others but not to ourselves? Especially for those of us in our twenties, this is a period of learning and growth, so we should be allowing ourselves to make mistakes and grow from them. Yet I expect perfection from myself.
TP: I can only speculate. It’s so common. I think that for high-achieving young adults, there is a strong belief that being hard on yourself is what leads to success. We live in a very competitive, individualistic society. Also, sometimes we want to beat ourselves up before somebody else does. It’s really surprising how universal it is. When you ask people about their negative self-talk, it just flows out of their mouths. It’s just as mean as if I say it to you or say it to me. Self-compassion is really important, and then we have it to give to others.
Q: What are the ways you have learned to speak to yourself in a loving way?
TP: I still struggle with it. Tara Brach talks about a second arrow. For example, I may feel something uncomfortable, or make a mistake, or wish something was different about my life. I can be mindful of my current emotions, and wish something was different; but I can also shoot that second arrow – that there is something inherently wrong with me because of it. That’s when I freeze. So be aware of judging your areas of growth. As human beings, we all have things we want to change, mistakes we’ve made. But when we judge ourselves, or feel guilty about it, we freeze. So be careful of that second arrow.
When you’re feeling anxious, you’re like,
“What do I have to feel grateful for?”
Once you relax and settle down,
and are kind to yourself,
almost always something will pop up.
Q: I have worked hard over the last several months to separate “I made a mistake” from “There is something wrong with me.” I’ve recognized that they are mutually exclusive. Just because I made a mistake doesn’t mean I’m fundamentally incorrect as a human being. Once I recognized that, I was able to overcome that step of anxiety. Now, when I make a mistake, I turn red with shame for a second, but then I’m able to say, “You know what? It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day, and we can keep going.” But it’s still challenging. No matter how old we are, we’re still going to be hard on ourselves.
TP: It’s like a cage we build for ourselves. If we make a mistake, or struggle, or want something to be different in our lives, when we fuse it with the thought that there is something unlovable about us, something fundamentally wrong, it is impossible to create change. So many people suffer in silence with that solidified fear or negative belief about themselves. Once we start talking about it, we realize how common it is. We are lovable despite our flaws.
Brené Brown speaks to the idea that because we all struggle we connect through vulnerability. Yet we are so afraid to share this vulnerability. I think our friendship developed because we shared our vulnerability, despite an age difference and different phases of life. It felt like such an authentic connection, because we were saying, “I’m really struggling, I need help, I feel alone.”
Q: That’s what I love about our relationship. You are a beautiful mom with two incredible kids, and I am twenty-eight and still trying to figure out my life. We’ve still found connection. We’ve still found this ability to relate to one another.
TP: What’s been incredible, especially over the last few months with coronavirus, is how many people have reconnected because they are dealing with mental health struggles. They’ve seen the way others have opened up, and they’ve been able to say, “I’m going through this, too. Can I talk to you about it?” It’s been a wonderful bonding experience. I feel closer to so many people in my life.
That’s exactly what has happened to me also. I have had the courage to bridge friendships where maybe there was a gap, or talk about things that were uncomfortable. Somehow, when you connect with someone else, there are no “shoulds.” This is a lifelong journey, and we really are in it together. When we connect with each other, there is freedom to be ourselves, to love ourselves, and to realize there is healing in that connection.
Q: Absolutely. Writing in a journal has been helpful for me, because I’m writing to myself. And of course, bouncing thoughts off others, finding ways to relate. We may have different stories, but there are many similarities that keep us more connected than we realize.
TP: That’s one thing that is coming from the coronavirus. We’re all in the same situation. We’re sheltering in place for safety, and for the safety of loved ones and strangers. A lot of us are scared, then we have moments of courage. And we’re re-evaluating what’s important to us. It’s a really important time to reflect. What are the things that really matter? Our connections to ourselves and to others.
When we connect with each other,
there is freedom to be ourselves,
to love ourselves,
and to realize there is
healing in that connection.
Q: There are so many things that I didn’t realize I took for granted until the coronavirus hit. I’m at home with my family, and I haven’t been able to hug my parents, grandparents or brother. When I was in New York, taking the subway to see my best friend was a scary thing, because I didn’t know who on the train might have the virus. Taking a walk, going to see my friends who live a couple of minutes away … those little things that I’ve taken for granted have pulled me closer to the people I love. It’s encouraged me to reach out to people with whom I had rocky relationships. This is not the time for hatred or malice, or any sort of blockage toward anybody.
TP: It’s an opportunity for growth. Any conflict, any challenge, any negative thoughts I have are an opportunity to really look at myself and see what they’re about. Keeping a curiosity to any experience or conflict with someone is “Mindfulness of Present Emotion.” Instead of trying to control it, try to be curious with your emotion, and with what’s going on with others. Also be very forgiving, because everyone is going to have moments when they’re really struggling.
I was thinking of the other person
and how to be supportive.
The more I reflected on the question,
I realized that when we take care of ourselves,
when we’re grounded, then they aren’t worried about us.
Then, when we reach out to talk to them,
we’re grounded, we’re present.
Q: How can we help the people we love who might be far away?
TP: It’s a beautiful question – one I have been thinking about. At first, I was thinking of the other person and how to be supportive. The more I reflected on the question, I realized that when we take care of ourselves, when we’re grounded, then they aren’t worried about us. Then, when we reach out to talk to them, we’re grounded, we’re present. They may need validation. Validation goes so far: “I hear that you’re struggling. This must be really hard. I’m feeling with you.”
And then there is direct communication. Ask the question, “What do you need?” It could be something physical, or it could be just showing up for them, saying, “I love you. I’m thinking about you.” I think we take for granted sometimes just how significant these small gestures can be.
Q: Tracie, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your story, and for sharing some beneficial tips that are helpful for this unique period and beyond.
TP: It was my pleasure.
Interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT
Illustrations by ARATI SHEDDE
March 01, 2021
February 28, 2021
February 28, 2021