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Social Comparison, Self-Compassion, and Staying Centered During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Dannie Bell, Youth Advisory Board Member

Three and a half weeks ago, my friends and I were sent home from our gap year program, Up With People, in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

A group of eighty young people moving from city to city each week, ultimately spanning two continents and five countries, no longer seemed sustainable under the conditions of a global pandemic.  We knew this, and suspended our tour on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. 

We’ve managed to reach out to each other in a multitude of ways since returning home, including Houseparty calls, Zoom cast meetings, and Instagram story challenges.  Our news team continues to make videos, and our cast representatives have organized weekly movie nights.  We celebrate birthdays in the WhatsApp and Facebook groups. 

During my first week home, I hiked every morning.  I felt the need to go somewhere as soon as my eyes opened.  I put on some upbeat music and marched to my favorite forest trail, where I would find a rock on which to meditate.  I used an app called Liberate, a library of meditations and reflections by and for the Black and African Diaspora. 

After a few days, I reclaimed my running practice.  I didn’t run much during my trip because of my packed schedule.  Now, I enjoy going on long, meditative runs around the high school lake a few times a week.  As I run, I allow my thoughts to come and go like waves, holding on to each one for a moment before letting it go.  Sometimes, I gain clarity on things that made me feel stuck before.  Other times, I simply smile and say hello to people and ducks I pass, running to the beat of the music.  What keeps me coming back is how calm, yet energized, I feel after a run. Plus, seeing my times improve from week to week is very satisfying.

In case you’re curious about the music I listen to, I have listed below three of my current favorite songs.  They are all featured on Self-Made, a Netflix original series inspired by the life of Madame CJ Walker. 

“It’s Been a Long Time” by Lady Wray

“It’s been a long time… but I got it now.”  This song inspires me to start again. I listened to it when I went for a run for the first time since returning home.  The song celebrates being bold enough to try something new, or to pick up on something where you left off.   

“Drive” by Raiche

 What causes success?  Focus, drive, intuition, determination?  Studies show that the most successful people in their fields have put the most hours into deliberate practice of their skill or craft on their own.  Perhaps, being alone isn’t such a big inconvenience after all.  We are strong enough to do the work without constant encouragement from others; we have the motivation inside of us.  Albert Einstein said he wasn’t that much smarter than these other scientists. He simply stuck with problems longer.  

 “Altitude” by Tiana Major9

“How about if you take flight and reach my altitude?  There’ll be no need for the floor.” This song isn’t as much about fantasy as it is about noticing the beauty around us.  Even when life as we know it comes to a halt, nature continues.

Speaking of music, I’ve witnessed an eruption of creation on social media since sheltering in place.  Drawings, paintings, TikToks, songs, cooking.  Even a 100-layer crepe milk cake by someone I didn’t know was a baker.  DJs are throwing virtual “parties” that lift our spirits and bring us together through music.  Their follower counts are also soaring.

It’s great to see people surviving and thriving during this painful and confusing time, but you can’t help but wonder, isn’t anyone feeling like I am?  Social media doesn’t reliably show you the times your friends and family are feeling stuck, lost, or panicked.  More often than not, it is a representation of their highlights, a projection of how they want their life to look.  Considering our tendency to engage in social comparison, social media can be very unhealthy.

Social comparison is what we call using peers as benchmarks to dictate our own success.  For example, studies show those who are unemployed in areas of high unemployment rates are happier than those who are unemployed living in areas of low unemployment rates (Clark (2003). Unemployment as a social norm: Psychological evidence from panel data. Journal of Labor Economics, 21(2), 323-351).  Our minds think in relative terms, not absolutes.  If we are doing as well as those around us, we feel we are doing well.  If we apply this mechanism of social comparison to a machine designed to show us glamour, luxury, and things not even our peers/neighbors have, our self-image is negatively impacted.

In order to combat detrimental social comparison, we can practice self-compassion.  For me, having self-compassion means avoiding comparing myself with the past me.  It means having patience, and knowing that leaving for my run at 4:02 is just as good as leaving at 4:00.  It means taking a little extra time to finish learning a piano piece, even if it gets me off schedule a bit.  It means smiling when I wobble in a yoga balance pose, and breathing deeply before trying again.  It means savoring the journey without rushing to the result. 

Sometimes, I think of life as a metaphor for cross country.  For example, the road is muddy right now.  Everyone’s times are slower than normal.  We are all being affected by this pandemic.  We are not alone in feeling disconnected, or maybe even unmotivated.  This is all the more reason to have compassion for ourselves.

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Diverse, Gifted & Resilient During Changing Times

The Steve Fund recognizes that these are challenging, unprecedented times.  We are a resource for students, their families, faculty and administration, and our mental health partners. COVID-19 is no exception. Our new webinar series, Community Conversations, features members of the Steve Fund community sharing how they are navigating this “new normal.”  We hope that their challenges, experiences and insights will inform and inspire you. You are not alone, and the Steve Fund is here to provide the support you need.