Lauren Agresti
Piece of Mind

Credit: Lauren Agresti / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Winter break has a weird way of annually rekindling my interest in pop psychology (read: I am mildly seasonally-affected and I love spending all my Christmas gift cards on mind-numbing self-help iBooks).

I always try to read novels or memoirs — anything to improve my writing, really — but titles like “59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot” just suck me right into the vortex of promised personal growth.

As usual, this year’s round-up of life-improving tips featured the good (keep a gratitude journal), the bad (if you have red hair, dye it because men don’t like it) and the ugly (write a detailed account of your own funeral). Nothing particularly groundbreaking — surprise.

I did notice, however, that recent studies from Berkeley on self-compassion by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen kept popping up in everything I was reading. In a nutshell, these studies demonstrated that self-compassion is a more effective motivator for self-improvement than self-esteem.

The idea itself isn’t very sexy. The notion that telling yourself it’s only human to make a mistake will get you further than just telling yourself you’re great all the time is actually a little counter intuitive.

This especially applies to us: ’90s kids. We were raised in the golden age of self-esteem. Barney the purple dinosaur told us “everyone is special,” our kindergarten teachers plastered pictures of us everywhere when it was our turn to be the arbitrary “student of the week” and we all got trophies at soccer camp.

In a way, it was a sign of the times. The ’90s were pretty fantastic. The budget was balanced, people could afford houses and we were blissfully unaware that Tongue Tattoo Fruit Roll-Ups were probably not a wholesome snack.

Any decade in which the federal government encouraged us to eat up to 11 slices of Wonder Bread per day was bound to rock. And we all rocked with it. But then everything kind of fell apart, and the mantras of self-adulation didn’t save us. Instead, we all stayed aboard the self-esteem express to cognitive dissonance town.

“We’re so awesome. But we failed. How could this be?” The whole fiscal cliff debacle has shed light on the reality that we still haven’t moved on from this mental paralysis.

Nationally, we could use a healthy dose of “we screwed up a lot of stuff, but it’s time to move on,” along with a little humility. But these are also highly effective, simple tools on an individual level.

Penn students are among the segment of the population that could benefit the most from adopting an attitude of self-compassion.

We’re notoriously stressed out and equally notoriously full of ourselves — a deadly concoction of self-esteem and fear of failure that could explode housing-market-style at any minute.

To make matters worse, we’re surrounded by all kinds of outrageously successful people with which to compare ourselves. When your best friend is a beautiful, fit, future investment banker with an active social life and unusually high aptitude for figure drawing, it’s easy to fall into a self-esteem trap. We feel awesome because our friends are awesome, but we also feel confused and defeated when we don’t measure up.

Worst of all, from the second we walk on campus, everyone — professors, student leaders, guest speakers — feels the need to constantly remind us that we are the world’s brightest bulbs and future leaders. Please, inflate our egos a little more. It’ll make that C- in Math 104 really easy to digest.

The good news is that cultivating self-compassion is relatively easy. And if you think of it as a counter cultural revolution, it even sounds kind of exciting. When you fail to achieve something at first, forgive yourself and try again.

Quick exercises — imagining your role models facing similar setbacks, mindful reflection on what went wrong and what you can do better and a few deep breaths — can make a lasting impact. If you’re struggling, visualize all of the other people in the world who feel your pain. Empathize with them.

Most importantly, shift your daily self-talk from “I can’t believe how much I rule” to “I’m human, but humans can accomplish big things.”

For our own sake, we need to do a little less building ourselves up, a lot less tearing ourselves down and loads more letting ourselves be.

Lauren Agresti is a College senior from Fulton, Md. Her email address is laurenagresti@gmail.com. Follow her @lagresti. “Piece of Mind” appears every other Tuesday.

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