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How you can learn to be kinder to yourself

Look gently at the year that passed by, make note of what needs to change or be sustained

December is when most of us try to make sense of the year.
December is when most of us try to make sense of the year. (iStockphoto)

A 39-year-old male client in therapy tells me, “Years just pass by, don’t they? It’s December already and I am back to examining and evaluating how the year went by, trying to figure what needs to sustain and what needs to change. December almost gives me a new perspective to the months that passed by.”

December is when most of us engage in an exercise of examining the year and trying to make sense of it rather than looking at it in parts. Whether we realise it or not, we are grading ourselves and the year based on personal parameters that we think allow for us to make sense of our life and our life satisfaction. These parameters could look different for different people: For some, it’s the money they made, the holidays they took, good health, the quality time they spent with loved ones; for others, the number of goals they met at professional level. For many of my clients in therapy and a lot of people around the world, this also includes evaluating the progress they made when it came to their mental health concerns, the decrease in anxiety and overwhelm, the increase in overall contentment, and how they fared in inter-personal relationships.

Whether we are conscious or not of it, all of us engage in this. At certain moments, like a birthday, an anniversary, and then with a calendar year ending, the question surfaces again and we are forced to look at it, even though we may have ignored it all year-round.

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That’s why December can sometimes be a hard month for so many people, because in our desire to evaluate and re-examine, we can sometimes be very critical of ourselves. Over almost two decades of my work, I have noticed that December and January are the time when many new clients reach out for therapy; often, it’s also the time when a lot of existing clients talk about how they find themselves feeling more anxious, often struggling, with a low-lying mood, without any specific reason sometimes.

At the same time, however, there are people who look at December as the time when things begin to ease and they can finally give themselves permission to take a break. As a client mentioned, “Even if my year has been trying, December feels hopeful as I can see a new beginning ahead.” For those who managed to achieve their goals and even meet quite a few personal and professional milestones, December can serve as a time to savour and even enjoy the process and allow a sense of contentment to settle in.

I often use this insight, gained from my practice, to help clients pause and ask themselves, “What does December evoke for me?” Very often, this question, seemingly so simple, can bring about so many emotions and perspectives that shape the course of work in therapy.

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As a second step, allow yourself to feel what’s emerging in you rather than intellectualising it. If it’s big, difficult feelings like grief, discontentment, feeling alone, then it may be a good moment to ask yourself how you can soothe yourself. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s a cue to reach out for support, whether it’s from a close friend or a mental health professional.

If you are experiencing feelings of joy, fulfilment and satisfaction, then there's even more reason to pause and soak in these feelings. When we are wired, working continually, it’s hard to even celebrate and stay with feelings that seem pleasant.

Most importantly, use this time of the year to be compassionate to yourself. The last two years have been gruelling for everyone and while we feel the itch to evaluate every year, we need to remember that how we fared in a particular year is not really a reflection of our life’s journey. Nobody other than you knows this, so give yourself the permission to gently look at the year that passed by, make note of what needs to be sustained and what needs to change, and yet be kind. We all need it.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.

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