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Forget Self-Care. Here’s Why Self-Compassion Should Be the Word of the Year

How do you truly make sense a year defined by so much chaos and tragedy? Self-compassion might be a good place to start.

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Did you ever think you’d drop words like quarantine effortlessly into your everyday conversations? I know I didn’t. I also know that over the last year, this word along with emojis like 💩 😭 🤦‍♀️  have punctuated more of my WhatsApp conversations than I’d like to admit. Because while I know the word, it wasn’t part of my day-to-day. Until it very much was.

Which is why Cambridge Dictionary’s decision to make ‘quarantine’ the word of 2020 isn’t at all surprising. And yet, I think they could have done a better job of reading the room. From where I sit, Cambridge Dictionary’s decision is tone-deaf.

I get it. At this point (as my family just finished our second ten day quarantine in the space of a week), I feel like quarantining has become more of a lifestyle than some abstract disease management concept. For us, it certainly has. 

The Art of Quarantining

We have a cupboard for arts and crafts and playdoh. And another for snacks. My kids are BIG snackers. I also have the ice cream place down the road on speed dial like some desperate junkie. Then there are our afternoon disco parties where we blast old rock or Israeli classics and jump and scream and throw pillows. And on really bad afternoons when the Grufflo and Cat in the Hat don’t cut it, playtime becomes bath time because mommy needs a break. The latest addition to our quarantine-survival kit is an eyesore of a red and black trampoline which now takes up most of our living room. 

The other day I moaned to my mom about all of this on the phone. About this black and red eyesore squatting in our living room. About how my life – complete with the many missed deadlines and the extra 10kgs that now jiggles persistently around my middle section – feels like it’s one domino away from collapsing. And all my mom could say was things like: “Well Nick, you’re doing the best you can,” and “These are uncertain times and you just have to do what you have to do.” Because really, what else is there to say?

But all this got me thinking about the year that was. A year I had hoped rather foolishly we’d put to bed. And yet here I find myself, like many others, still juggling kids, quarantines, COVID tests and work. It’s messy. It’s unpleasant. It’s challenging and terribly disruptive. And yet we’ve managed to make it part of our daily lives. We’ve found a way to live around quarantines all while never leaving our 120 square meter apartment. A small feit, I must admit.

A Small Part of a Much Bigger Puzzle

Last year was the first time many of us had to live through the devastating impact of a quarantine. If I’m honest, I’d always associated quarantines with the Spanish Flu, and I never thought this was something I’d have to deal with let alone live through. And interestingly enough, neither did the World Health Organization (WHO). 

When Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley started researching their upcoming book on how quarantines have shaped architecture, they reached out to the WHO for a comment. Let’s just say the WHO laughed in their faces. They just couldn’t see how quarantines would play a role as a modern disease prevention tool. This was before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic of course.

But let’s face it, the WHO weren’t the only ones who were caught off guard. I keep hearing people say things like: Who could have imagined we’d be living like this? And I get it. Because there’s something otherworldly and almost prehistoric about living through a quarantine. It’s something that seems far too outdated and antiquated to happen at a time in history when we’re exploring mars (thanks Perseverance) and enjoying the benefits of electric cars. All this may help explain the dramatic spike in online searches for the term ‘pandemic’ and Cambridge Dictionary’s decision to make ‘quarantine’ the word of 2020. 

Cambridge Dictionary’s Publishing Manager, Wendy Nichols, made the point that: “The words that people search for reveal not just what is happening in the world, but what matters most to them in relation to those events. Neither coronavirus nor COVID-19 appeared among the words that Cambridge Dictionary users searched for most this year. We believe this indicates that people have been fairly confident about what the virus is.”

So yes, It does make sense that in 2020 online searches for the term ‘quarantine’ increased by 57,000%. Because while they have now become another routine inconvenience firmly entrenched in our collective psyche, at the beginning of 2020 the idea of quarantine was novel. But does our collective search history really reflect what mattered most to us? Does the fact that more people than ever before were searching ‘quarantine’ mean that this is really what most people were preoccupied with in 2020? If you ask me, definitely not. I’d argue that this is nothing more than a crude simplification that erases much of what we experienced in 2020 and continue to grapple with 2021.

The OED took a more nuanced approach to 2020’s word of the year. Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, made the point: “It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.” Their selection shines a light on the myriad of experiences and tumultuous moments that made 2020 what it was. They made the point that in 2020 we saw the emergence of new words, like COVID, as well as the revival of words that haven’t been popular since a walkman was a thing. These include words like superspreader (popular in the 70s), coronavirus (which dates back to the 60s), furlough and mask-shaming among others. But 2020 was about more than just a pandemic, and OED’s selection of words reflects this by highlighting words like Black Lives Matter, BLM and QAnon. This is commendable. And yet, it still doesn’t really capture what the last year was really about. Because the reality is that all these words are just a small part of a much bigger puzzle.

There aren’t Enough Mantras or Self-Love to Save You

At the beginning of every new year I set my intentions, outline my goals and decide on the word and mantra that is going to guide me through the next 365 days. And 2020 was no different. The only thing that set it apart from other years was that I, like some living breathing cliche, decided that this was going to be MY year. Don’t you just love those people?!

I committed to drinking a morning smoothie, had signed up at a co-working space and was ready to quadruple my freelance business. And so what could be more fitting as a word of the year than the word ‘magnetic’? In my mind’s eye I could already see the clients rolling in. And they weren’t just any clients. They were the right clients who would love my work, pay on time and would come back for more. I felt charged and magnetic. But just in case, in addition to this word, I armed myself with a powerful mantra that I recited on my way to the co-working space every morning: I am a magnet for good. I attract the right clients and have enough money and time. 

Armed with my word of the year and what I thought was a fail-proof mantra, I felt powerful and ready to take on any challenge. I believed that 2020 was going to be my year. And then the first lockdown hit Israel. Soon after I lost most of my clients and found myself stuck at home with my husband and two young kids binge-watching Netflix as I ate chocolate by the slab. It wasn’t pretty. And yet I think a version of this was the reality for many people in 2020 and still is as we come to terms with this pandemic. 

I don’t care if online searches say different, words like ‘pandemic’ and ‘superspreader’ don’t even begin to capture what living through the last year was like. They don’t convey the sense of hopelessness and anxiety that haunted most of 2020. But you probably already know that. You were there too. I remember early on in the pandemic I was too anxious to leave the house. And when I finally dared to venture beyond our front door, I did so only with a mask and plastic gloves. At one point I didn’t leave the house for 6 weeks. 

To truly understand 2020 and to make sense of 2021, we need to look beyond online searches and words of the year. 2020 was a year that taught us the true meaning of tragedy and grief. It was a year that forced us to be empathetic and to surrender control. And for me, it was a year that taught me that mantras and power words aren’t always enough. And so I turned to self-care. I tried meditation, focused on getting healthy sleep and even took up running. This helped, until it didn’t. 

If I’m honest, I feel all self-cared out. And it’s not because I don’t believe in the benefits of a regular self-care routine, but because life under quarantine requires more than breathing exercises, a face mask and some soothing camomile tea. I realized this after our last 10 day quarantine when I found myself dancing to some music on my cell phone after I’d banished my kids to the living room. It was a low point and a wakeup call for me. And perhaps it was my face-palm moment. It was in that moment that I realized no amount of self-care or clever mantras were going to get me through this.

Enough With the Self-Care Already

2020 was a tough one. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this. I also know that if, like me, you hit a roadblock, watched as your life crumbled into millions of tiny, unrecognizable pieces and then struggled to glue it all back together, you were probably offered self-care by the bucketload. My advice: Don’t do it. Step away from the meditation app. It’s a plaster. It’s a temporary fix to a much bigger problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Self-care has its place. But it’s not on the frontlines of this pandemic. To truly honor our experiences and ourselves, we need self-compassion. That is we need to learn to love ourselves no matter what life throws at us. Because it’s only by embracing true self-compassion that we’ll find that inner strength we’ve been missing all along. The strength to do, say, be or face whatever it is that’s holding us back wholeheartedly. And I’d go so far as to say that ‘self-compassion’, and not words like ‘quarantine’, should be the word we use to document what living through this year is all about. This should be the word of the year. I know for me that’s certainly the case.

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