Tend & befriend: Self-care and self-compassion in challenging times

As we valiantly fight COVID-19 through the collective efforts of citizens the world over, as we offer care and comfort to each other, let us remember to comfort and care for ourselves too.

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We’ve been to the Arctic and the African plains, watched polar bears and gazelles. In the company of David Attenborough, from our couch, in lockdown. We’ve watched animals gathering together, sheltering their young from the danger of predators. Just like us. We too have gathered together, our little family of three, sheltering in place from the danger of COVID-19.

In 2000, social psychologist Shelley Taylor described this response to threat as “tend and befriend”. She observed how species protect their young and vulnerable (tend) and seek to affiliate or come together (befriend) in a collective response, different to the “fight or flight” survival reaction that is so often described as the principal threat defence system.

In homes and places the world over, people are coming together to tend to their most vulnerable, while citizens, locally and globally, befriend others in heartening ways. We have seen children painting rainbow pictures to display in windows to cheer health workers, teenagers 3D-printing ties for face masks, local sports clubs partnering with shops to deliver groceries to cocooning seniors, teachers connecting virtually with children in online classrooms, donations being made to bring food to exhausted frontline workers, houses being offered to those who need to self-isolate, scientists sharing information about the virus and the treatment, governments donating personal protective equipment and funding to struggling nations.

We are in this together. Never before has this saying rung so true. Collectively, the “tend and befriend” response offers us feelings of solidarity and shared purpose and increases our human species’ chances of surviving COVID-19. I believe we can harness the power and protection of the “tend and befriend” response as individuals too. For the inevitable times when we feel vulnerable and under threat, from illness, loneliness or worry, instead of fighting our distress or fleeing from it, we can consider a different response. We can tend to our discomfort, our fragile selves. Think of how we tend to a precious child. In as much as we can, we provide nourishing food, warm comfortable clothes, time for play and stimulation and time for rest and sleep. And cuddles and smiles and stories and song. In the same way, as adults we can tend or take care of ourselves by eating well, exercising, sleeping enough, having down time, time together, time alone. How do you tend to or take care of yourself in challenging times? 

With our physical selves tended, we can befriend our emotional selves too. Most of us are empathic and supportive to our loved ones when they are suffering, keen to alleviate their pain and distress. Can we extend that understanding and compassion to ourselves? Articulated by Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff, self-compassion comprises three elements: mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness. Firstly, we learn to recognise and acknowledge our own suffering without exaggerating or minimising it (mindfulness). Then, we remind ourselves that we are not alone or weak or flawed for feeling pain, worry, anger or sadness (common humanity). Lastly, we offer ourselves compassion through physically soothing gestures or comforting words (self-kindness). In short, we befriend ourselves.

As we valiantly fight COVID-19 through the collective efforts of citizens the world over, as we offer care and comfort to each other, let us remember to comfort and care for ourselves too, now and in the days to come. Our survival may well depend on it.

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