The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for everyone this past year, but it is the climbing depression rates among teenagers in the United States that is concerning health care workers, parents and educators all over the country. A survey conducted in June 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that mental health visits to the emergency room by 12- to 17-year-olds increased by 31% after the lockdown compared to the year before, and an alarming 26% of young adults from ages 18-24 reported serious suicidal ideation in the past 30 days. There are several things we can blame for this mental health decline – frustration with virtual learning, less privacy at home, lack of in-person hangouts, etc. However, psychologists have been able to identify that the limited social interaction brought by the quarantine is the culprit of many of these new anxiety and depression cases. A report by Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education Project, found that 1 in 3 Americans said they experienced “serious loneliness” during the pandemic, 61% being young adults. A crucial part of friends’ dynamic is being in each other’s presence, and the lack of that in-person interaction has left many feeling left out of their friends’ lives. Some are disappointed by their friends’ lack of effort to connect, and others have been hurt by photographic evidence of friends gathering without them on their social media timeline. Clashing viewpoints on social issues and ethical beliefs have also caused a rift between friends who had not had those conversations prior to the social justice movements that emerged in 2020.
Why has it been so difficult to maintain friendships during the pandemic?
According to Kat Vellos, connection coach and author of “We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships,” there are four elements that allow a friendship to thrive. These include:
- Close physical proximity
- Regular interactions
- A compatible outlook on life
- Shared commitment to being there for each other
Close physical proximity and regular interactions have been compromised due to the nature of the pandemic, so it is no surprise that friendships have suffered. For some, reaching out can cause feelings of anxiety and a fear of judgment for being the first one to reach out. With no hallway, cafeteria or classroom interactions at school, people must keep up with close friends and acquaintances through online communication, which comes with its own challenges. Some teens solely communicate through apps like Snapchat or Instagram, and even with text messages and phone calls, it is difficult to decide what to share and how to condense events that are happening in your life into a DM, snap or text. With the average teen spending nine hours a day online, it is clear that the increased social media usage has also contributed to friendship struggles during the pandemic. Apps like Instagram have amplified social drama and created competition and comparison among peers, since many people don’t post the unposed and unedited version of themselves that we would normally see at school. It has also given people a platform to update their followers on who they are with, what they’re doing and where they are at all times. Invites to small gatherings have become more exclusive to adhere to social distancing, and for some, friendships were broken after clicking through stories of “friends” hanging out without them. For others, the time alone created an opportunity to analyze and question potentially unhealthy relationships. The break from in-person school has allowed many to discover themselves and figure out what or who is holding them back from living as their authentic selves. Reflection and self-love practices can guide teenagers as they navigate existing friendships, toxic friendships, and new connections during this time.
Self-love vs. Self-compassion vs. Self-esteem. How can it help with creating meaningful connections?
Although they are all similar, self-love, self-compassion and self-esteem are different. Self-love is a state of appreciation for yourself. Living in self-love allows you to set healthy boundaries and prioritize your well-being and happiness. It means using intuition and tuning into your body to take care of your own needs before compromising your happiness to please others. When we acknowledge that we need a break or privacy, or identify that separating ourselves from an unhealthy relationship may support our well-being, we practice self-love. Often mistaken for self-love, self-compassion is our ability to accept and stop evaluating and judging ourselves. It is our ability to be understanding when we are faced with challenges and acknowledge self-deprecating feelings without suppression or exaggeration. We are often reminded of the importance of being compassionate towards others, but people hardly talk about how important it is to be compassionate towards ourselves. Practicing self-compassion is treating ourselves with the same kindness and consideration that we would a friend or stranger. This is different from self-esteem, since self-compassion isn’t about seeing ourselves as superior to others or relating this self acceptance to achievements and status. Self-compassion steps in when self-esteem lets us down and it allows us to be accepting of ourselves without comparison.
The word “self” is part of all of these terms, but being able to practice self-love and self-compassion has been proven to be beneficial for relationships as well. Those who treat themselves with compassion are more likely to be an empathetic and supportive friend or partner, and are more likely to feel authentic in their relationships. Cultivating self-love attracts those who are also secure in themselves, and knowing your worth, which is a main indicator of self-love, allows you to know what you are looking for in a friendship and not settle for treatment that doesn’t align with how you view yourself. The main goal of self-compassion is to speak to yourself and comfort yourself like you would a friend, and if someone is not providing us with that support, we can quickly acknowledge that this may not be a relationship that will help us grow. When we set healthy boundaries and practice self-compassion, love and forgiveness, we set the tone for how we want others to treat us, and we don’t allow ourselves to be treated in the harsh and damaging ways that we wouldn’t treat ourselves. When we are living in a state of self-love and self-compassion, we are also able to acknowledge that we have the power to make ourselves feel happy, fulfilled and worthy without depending on others. Creating meaningful connections when you are feeling like your most authentic self is a great way to attract like-minded friends, but stepping into this version of yourself comes with regularly practicing self-love, self-compassion and self-kindness.
My response: The Self-Compassion Journey Journal and the Benefits of Reflection
I decided to create a 30-day self-compassion journal with prompts that would help readers reflect and practice self-kindness, self-love and self-compassion. Journaling has been an outlet for me during the pandemic and I wanted to share the benefits I experienced with others. I began journaling every day in August 2020, and I found that answering a thought-provoking question at the end of each day allowed me to collect and analyze my feelings, and it became a habit that made me more self-aware and introspective. I was able to discover more about myself, which was something that I needed after leaving a friend group that I had centered my identity around. Some of the benefits of journaling and self-reflection include reduced stress and a boost in memory and mindfulness, but it can also be a therapeutic self-care practice and aid in problem solving or addressing and releasing negative thoughts. The digital journal linked above includes thirty prompts related to self-compassion. It is split into three parts – self-kindness, shadow work and gratitude, which are all elements of a self-compassion journey. I encourage you to download this journal and answer one question a day for 30 days, and see if your mindset shifts after answering all the prompts.
Interested in embarking on your own self-compassion journey? Join the conversation by commenting and answering these questions:
- If you spoke to a friend like you spoke to yourself, would they feel supported or put down? Why?
- What is one step you can take to curb negative self talk?
- What qualities do you look for in a friend? Do you possess those qualities yourself?
I would also appreciate it if you could fill out this feedback form.