About 1 in 7 Singaporeans has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime (Singapore Mental Health, 2016). With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are new areas of worry that we all might relate to, such as health, job opportunities and economic outlook. In addition, many of us might start to feel a lack of control over our situation, leading to more stress that gets harder to manage.
With reduced physical accessibility to healthcare and increased severity of mental health in Singapore, there is a greater need of practicing self-care to cope with stressors and improve mental health in this time and age with or without the support of a healthcare provider (World Health Organization, n.d).
In approaching the development of self-care, the group has identified two key facets: Self Compassion and Self-Empowerment.
We think that looking at Self Compassion and Self-Empowerment will help us all in being kind to ourselves and in taking care of ourselves in our everyday lives and in the times of the pandemic. The idea of Self Compassion and Self-Empowerment is integral in our approach to our daily struggles and will serve as guidance for the self-care practice the group has specially crafted for you.
Struggles in Daily Life
We have identified 2 categories of struggles that we might encounter in daily life, specifically external and internal struggles. Under these categories we have identified 2 main struggles each and seen how these struggles relate across categories.
1) High Expectations
Singapore’s competitive culture and system of meritocracy has bred a culture of kiasuism, which creates high expectations of Singaporeans. There have been high expectations placed on students to excel academically. Indeed, a study done found that 82% of students wanted to top their class. The bell-curve system on which we grade our students has caused students to not only want to excel academically but excel to win their fellow students. As university students, the mad grind to achieve academic excellence is not new to us.
As students that will enter the workforce soon, it is important to realise that this competitive culture and high expectations do not end in school but continues on in the workforce as well. There is a culture of workaholism in Singapore where Singapore residents in 2015 worked the second longest week in developed cities around the world, with 45.6 working hours a week. Additionally, there is also a culture of presenteeism where we are pressured to stay at work longer when our bosses are still around, or to complete work that could be done the next day. This culture is caused by high expectations of output, that is important for us to know and manage before we enter the workforce.
These high expectations tend to affect our mental well-being.
2) Social Media Comparison
Social media applications open up a greater pool of people for us to socially compare with. A potential struggle we have while browsing social media is the tendency for us to engage in upward social comparison. Studies have shown that when we are exposed to social media profiles of individuals who are living better lives than us, we tend to engage in upward social comparison which results in lower self-evaluations. This tends to make us develop self-image issues.
1) Mental Well-Being
According to the Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey in 2019, 92% of working Singaporeans are stressed. Singaporean students are also constantly worrying about tests and grades and in a study conducted by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), they found that anxiety levels in Singaporean students were significantly higher than the average. These stresses to excel affects our Mental Well-Being. Indeed, we see that there has been a rise in lifetime prevalence of mental disorders from 12% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016 (SMHS, 2016).
2) Self-Image Issues
When it comes to social comparisons, there are different aspects that might affect us. We socially compare to people on dimensions that are important to us such as;
Material wealth standards, Achievement standards, and Beauty standards. These are dangerous as it can cause us to feel inadequate when we compare to such high unrealistic standards, such that we might develop self-image issues.
The Self-Compassion Guide
Here are 3 chronological steps to take charge of your personal well-being, as well as a brief summary of their pedagogically supported benefits:
1) Mirror Meditation (Well, 2019)
● Transforms self-criticism into self-compassion
● Improves face-to-face communication
● Deeper understanding of facial expressions, allowing for higher understanding of one’s own emotions
● Journaling as a form of “self-therapy” (Dunlap, 2006; Page & Clarke, 2014)
● “Journaling captures a moment or portrays an experience; it provides a means to get in touch with our emotions and make sense of our feelings.” (Portman, 2020)
3) Verbal Self-Affirmations (Crocker et al., 2008)
● Enables users to “transcend self-image concerns by increasing other-directed feelings...”
○ Affirmed participants expressed “greater feelings of love and connection” after their practice.
● Heightened self-compassion is a form of boosting one’s self-image.
These 3 steps culminate in the cultivation of a holistic Self-Care Ecosystem, which incorporates elements of mindfulness for enhanced quality of life.
Follow along as we walk you through the step-by-step process behind each of these practices.
1) Mirror Meditation
● Step 1: In a quiet environment, find a comfortable position in a chair or on the floor.
● Step 2: Adjust the mirror at an angle that allows optimal eye contact with your reflection.
● Step 3: Set a time for 10 minutes - 5 minutes if you are just starting out. Set your intention for the practice: To simply sit with your reflection.
● Step 4: Finding a steady rhythm of deep breathing, slowly shut your eyes, inhaling, holding, and slowly exhaling.
● Step 5: Once relaxed, allow your breathing to even out. Visualise any spots of tension leaving your body with each exhale.
● Step 6: Open your eyes and look into the mirror. Bring your attention to your breath - does your gaze change its rhythm or depth?
● Step 7: Carefully observe the message in your eyes - is it critical or kind? Did you zero in on things you dislike about yourself? Visualise your breath dissolving these negative thoughts.
● Step 8: As each thought passes, observe the way your expressions change across your face.
● Step 9: If you find yourself fixated on a negative thought, gently return your attention to your reflection. Acknowledge these thoughts while regarding your reflection with kindness.
● Step 1: Find the root cause of your stress.
Take a deep breath and find stillness before asking yourself - what aspects of your situation are stressing you out the most?
● Step 2: Look for viable solutions - things you can change.
Re-word your thoughts - instead of using “I wish I could change this…” consider “Can I change this?”; Explore your “How might I”’s given the existing circumstances.
● Step 3: Find the silver lining.
If you’ve been cornered into a situation you have no control over, reframe your thoughts by looking for the opportunities amidst the storm - “What can I learn from this incident?”; “What are some long-term benefits?”
● Step 4: Learn to laugh at yourself.
Consider traumatic incidents of your past - do you laugh at yourself in hindsight? Why not accelerate this process, and embrace the most stressful aspects of a situation as the most humorous? Afterall, laughter is the best medicine.
3) Verbal Self-affirmations
● Step 1: Identify areas of your life you wish to improve.
Start with a deep inhale, hold your breath for 3 seconds, and let out a long exhale. Find stillness and begin penning down areas of improvement you identified from your mirror meditation session. Ensure that these are aligned with your core values - this adds weight to your goals.
● Step 2: Set realistic and credible affirmations.
Craft affirmations with both feet on the ground, basing them off facts of your present position in life. Your affirmations need to be achievable in order for them to be believable.
● Step 3: Actively reframe negatives into positives.
Note the negative self-talk you might have encountered during your mirror meditation. Purposefully reframe these sentences into its antonymic equivalent:
○ E.g., “I am so ugly” → “I am uniquely me, and that’s what makes me beautiful!”
● Step 4: Write your affirmations in the present tense.
Craft and vocalise your affirmations as though they are already occurring in the present.
● Step 5: Vocalise your affirmations with conviction.
Adding emotional weight to your verbalised affirmations give it more importance - you need to want this change to happen.
A Self-Care Ecosystem
All in all, these 3 macro steps take differing roles in contributing towards a cohesive ecosystem of self-care in your journey.
Mirror meditation lays the foundation in encouraging users to learn to “simply sit” with their reflection, embracing their flaws and gaining greater awareness of the rampant nature of negative self-talk. Learn to identify how your face looks and feels when you have such pessimistic thoughts, acknowledging their existence before releasing them with an exhale.
Journaling acts as an essential supporting step in encouraging the reframing of the negative self-talk gleaned from users’ mirror meditation sessions into positive traits - looking for the silver lining. Reframing offers a critical opportunity to correct overt self-hatred and cultivate self-compassion, allowing users the opportunity to walk through self-criticism more objectively. Moreover, journaling works towards improving one’s sense of self-efficacy, hence boosting self-esteem as a whole.
Finally, self-compassion is manifested in the application step of verbal self-affirmations, which represents the physical speaking of these desired changes in one’s life into existence. As discussed by the aforementioned academia, spoken affirmations possessing qualities of conviction help to add weight to the changes users wish to see in their present reality.
Taking a bird’s eye view, the aforementioned 3 steps collectively form a cohesive self-care ecosystem where users will be guided through the foundational steps of identifying self-criticism (mirror meditation), reframing these thoughts into objective self-compassion (journaling), and applying these positive learnings to their present reality with conviction (verbal self-affirmations).
We strongly believe in the robustness and efficacy of these proposed macro steps in the construction of a self-care ecosystem that is both accessible and relevant to the students of SOSS.
Common Problems Faced
Practice makes perfect, but no great journey is without its challenges.
We liked that it was easy to do and convenient as it only requires a mirror. Looking at ourselves did not require much skill and knowledge so it was easy for us to get started. However, it was initially uncomfortable to stare at the reflection of ourselves for a while as it was not something that we were used to. As we continued staring, it led to a “mirror trap” where we started to fixate on our flaws, and this resulted in a spiral of negative thoughts as we started ruminating.
“I felt super uncomfortable staring at myself in the mirror. I thought my reflection was creepy and kept thinking of horror movie scenes,”
“I had to tell myself something while staring at the mirror, if not, the silence gets deafening and it feels like something bad will happen,” – Christabel
The group had similar sentiments.
“It was uncomfortable at first and kind of awkward,” – Wan Ting
But she felt that she grew to appreciate her flaws over the weeks.
“I saw my scars as memories of the different experiences in my life. They each tell a story and make me who I am. They are beautiful.” – Wan Ting
Journaling helped us reframe our thinking in a positive way. It allowed us to reflect on our day and appreciate the things that happened. We liked how therapeutic it was as it helped to clear our mind and sharpen our focus. However, we disliked how it was hard to start as we had to think of things to write about. It also had to be done consistently to be effective. Soon enough, it became a chore as we were forced to come up with something even though nothing significant happened that day. Christabel also pointed out that for people with self-esteem issues, journaling is “a good way to process the entire meditation” as the mirror meditation might be too intense at times and get practitioners stuck in a “mirror trap”.
We liked how saying positive thoughts aloud reminded us of our positive traits. Though it felt awkward at the start and occasionally disingenuous as we sometimes did not believe in the good things that we say about ourselves, we grew to believe those positive affirmations and it boosted our confidence and mood. Shan Hui found the verbal self-affirmation particularly helpful.
“On the morning of one of my presentations, I encouraged myself by looking myself in the eye (in the mirror) and saying, ‘You can do it, Shan!’” – Shan Hui
While simple and seemingly insignificant, she found that this self-compassion helped her stay confident while presenting, and significantly lifted her mood for the rest of the day.
“I ended up having a very optimistic day.” - Shan Hui
Overall, we had a great experience with the practice. Though the mirror meditation made us more aware of our flaws, it was necessary to be aware of them so that we could acknowledge our perceptions of ourselves and reframe them positively through journaling. The verbal affirmation helped to reinforce our positive thoughts. At the end of the month, we experienced greater self-awareness, calmer moods, lower stress and anxiety levels.
“I feel like a different person,” “It may take some time getting used to, but the journey was definitely worth it.” - Wan Ting
These struggles may be familiar to you when you first start on this journey as well. After 1-2 months of practicing, we have found some solutions that have helped us, and we hope to share them with you.
With mirror meditation, you might feel uncomfortable when you first begin. Some of us felt trapped and started ruminating and spiralling into negativity. It is always okay to start off with a short meditation period of about 3-5 minutes, and gradually increase once you feel more accustomed to it. Core to mindfulness is the concept of non-judgement. In the mirror, practice a non-judgemental gaze, and let yourself feel the emotions that arise without judgement. If it gets too much, mindfully take a step away and feel free to pause the practice. Mirror mindfulness may increase awareness of negative self-talk and it is crucial to address this negative self-talk through journaling and compassionate verbal self-affirmations.
For our journaling practice, we sometimes struggled with inconsistency as it was bothersome to journal amidst busyness. When we sat down to journal, we sometimes faced mental blocks in what to write as well. Yet we realised that habits are powerful, and constantly setting aside a time of the day to journal can be helpful in creating a journaling habit. As students, commuting to SMU is an unavoidable part of the day. We found that journaling during our commute was helpful for us. It is normal to face mental blocks when journaling as well. We can practice non-judgemental journaling, by not forcing ourselves to write something “meaningful”. In fact, some journaling techniques are meant to be random, such as Monkey Mind Journaling, where you write whatever comes to mind no matter how disjointed the thoughts might be. For those of us who prefer structure, we can customise our own journaling template and guiding questions as well.
This is a template that may be relatable:
1. What is giving me stress?
E.g., An upcoming presentation, grades, a challenging module, packed schedules, internship struggles
2. What can I change about the situation, and what can’t I?
We can mindfully learn to let go of situations beyond our control, and instead focus on positively reframing those situations. What can we learn from these experiences?
3. Are there underlying reasons for my stress?
E.g., Fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, perfectionism, high expectations from family
4. Where do these fears come from, and do I have the capacity to manage them?
Find ways to comfort your inner child, if need be. If you find that you do not have the emotional and mental capacity to manage these fears, there are useful resources such as SMU’s Mrs Wong Leong’s Wellness Centre.
Lastly, self-affirmations can occasionally feel disingenuous and awkward. On certain days, it may even be hard to think of good things to say about ourselves. Yet self-affirmation is a powerful tool to rewrite our negative self-talk. The trick is to keep at it no matter how disingenuous and awkward it might feel in the beginning. To connect better to your affirmations, customise it to your weaknesses and talk to your inner child with compassion.
These are some affirmations that have helped us in our SMU journey, when we struggled with competency-related fears about school, internships, and our job search:
1. I am doing well, and I will be okay.
2. The journey is as important as the endpoint, I do not have to fixate on perfection.
3. In the grand scheme of things, a module or a grade is small, and my learning is what matters.
4. I do not have to compare myself to my peers, as I am moving at my own place, and this journey is mine alone.
5. I am still worthy and capable, even if this company does not extend a job/internship offer.
6. I may not be “there” yet, but I am making progress to be where I want to be.
7. I am strong and able to voice my opinions in class, school, or in work meetings.
8. I am proud of how far I have come.
“Self-love is the foundation for your capacity to love the other person”
- Thich Nhat Hanh, 2002
We are all working towards making self-love and compassion an instinctive part of our daily lives.
Join us on this lifelong journey!
By Park Shan Hui, Koh Wan Ting, Oh Ning En Gillian, Wong Christabel, and Liang Shuyu
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