It seems like allowing yourself to relax should be the easiest thing to do, right? In chemistry terms, there really should be no activation energy for doing so. All you have to do is, essentially, not do anything. Relax. Take a step back.
Somehow, though, I often find myself in a constant cycle of trying to do too much or being too hard on myself when I inevitably make mistakes. During these times, I find it especially important to give me (Grace) grace. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “give yourself grace” before, and maybe you haven’t. Although I can’t claim to know the perfect definition or method of doing so, I can share a bit about how this has played a role in my life, especially over the past few months.
To me, giving myself grace means allowing myself the room and compassion to make mistakes and grow from them. When I inevitably mess up, whether the error is big or small, the easiest thing to do is to blame myself. If I didn’t do well on a quiz, maybe it was because I didn’t study enough or should have stayed up later instead of sleeping early (sleep is more important, by the way!). If I couldn’t manage a certain distance on my long run, maybe it was because I was just too weak or gave up too easily. However, this mindset only leads to more stress, anxiety, and ultimately no growth.
Instead of “kicking myself” when I am feeling disappointed, I try to objectively analyze what went wrong. In my opinion, focusing on mistakes becomes problematic when I internalize them and treat them as reflections of my own ability or character. On the other hand, identifying adaptations I can make to improve future performance can allow me to develop my growth mindset in a healthier way.
For instance, following the discovery of a lower grade than I had hoped, I take a second to breathe and let myself feel the necessary emotions before recognizing that I tried my best and have more opportunities to better reflect my understanding of the material. This may include taking a step back from my desk entirely to do some other fun activity. Then, after I have given myself sufficient space to look at the problem from a different perspective, I try to identify areas in which I could improve. Were there resources or office hours I didn’t take advantage of? Did I get enough sleep before the assessment? Was I too nervous to ask questions during the class? I can’t guarantee this will help everyone, but for me, this process gives me a new motivation and drive to keep working and not give up. Furthermore, separating my worth from the numbers in the grade book allows me to maintain a healthier mindset around academics.
Although I’ve given the example of performance in school/at MIT, I think this approach could apply in every situation and to everyone.
Here are a few of my strategies for giving grace to myself (and others!):
- Recognize that nobody (not a single person) is perfect.
- Accept that all I can expect from myself is my best effort.
- Take a step back. Does this really have a long-lasting, big-picture effect? (Even if it does, be kind to yourself! You are human.).
- Write down some of the things that I (or someone else) am great at.
- Realize that every single day is different. Not only does this mean that you will and are changing every single day, but it also means that every single day (and every single hour) is an opportunity to change your mindset and make progress on your goals.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint! This applies to many of the big-picture goals in my life (of course, it wouldn’t apply to a track race if I was running one.). Preventing burnout, especially early on in one’s journey, includes giving myself room to inevitably make mistakes.
- Do something else for a bit. Going for a run is a great change of pace from studying or working on a project.
Speaking of “doing something else,” here are some activities I enjoy when I am taking a step back from the issue at hand:
- Journaling: “Brain-dumping” in a notebook allows me to get any initial negative thoughts out of the way before I return to a more positive mindset. Talking — or rather, writing — into the void
- Spending time with family and friends: Being around and laughing with other people gives me such unique energy and rejuvenation. I truly love spending time with loved ones, no matter what we are doing or where we are. One of my favorite activities last summer was going on early Sunday bike rides with fellow “morning adventurers.” In addition, other people may be able to provide valuable insight into the problem at hand or relate to the situation.
- Reading: I love fiction and self-help books, which are the perfect change of pace from physical activity or the more information-dense textbook material.
- Baking: Since the pandemic began, I have found solace in creating delicious desserts for my family and friends. Some odd favorites include avocado brownies, zucchini bread, and carrot cookies! I do enjoy the classic banana bread and chocolate chip cookies as well, I promise.
- Crafting: I really enjoy working with my hands, and it definitely provides a contrast to reading or working on a pset. Personally, thrift-flipping with my new sewing machine (a classic quarantine purchase) or working with polymer clay is very fun and engaging. Plus, no matter how the creation turns out, I can be proud that I made it myself!
- Self-care Night: Self-care should be a daily focus, but I do enjoy a good spa night! Face masks, a bath bomb, and candles are in order here.
I hope this has been helpful! Especially in a grueling environment like MIT, it’s extremely important to accept and appreciate one’s mistakes. It is unfair to expect yourself or others to be perfect all of the time, and blunders are the stepping stones to future success! It sounds cliché, I know, but realizing this has improved my mental health and mindset greatly.
Wishing you the best,