Whenever something bad happens in my life, there is always one person that just can’t resist the urge to tell me that “everything happens for a reason.” While those are definitely not the words that I want to hear in the moment, I will admit that I eventually do find that reason every time.
Even if it is just one, there is some positive change or lesson that would have never come without that hardship, and this pandemic is no different. My experience over the past nine months has taught me many things, but I think the most important lesson is about the concept of self-responsibility.
About a month into quarantine, I found myself feeling very isolated, bored and powerless. These feelings took their toll on my mental health, and I don’t think I was alone in that. In a report about the mental health of college students during the pandemic, half of all the students reported experiences of anxiety and about a third reported feelings of depression. While the circumstances of each person may be different, this huge change that could not be controlled is bound to cause stress.
The powerlessness and lack of control is what really impacted me the most. I felt like there was nothing left of my regular habits but playing video games, and that quickly lost its luster. Once the boredom set in, all I was left with was my bitterness, fear and lost dreams of “2020: The Movie.” While I do recognize that I am privileged to have only been worried about lack of things to do, this experience still sucked. However, like the good characters in movies, it was at this darkest moment that I was forced to change in order to rise from this “sunken place.”
Self-responsibility, of course, is not the magic solution to fixing every mental health issue out there, but it can be an accessible step to making progress.
I had to realize the full meaning behind the idea of self-responsibility in order to experience my own agency. The epiphany came while I was reading “The 6 Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden, a practicing psychotherapist. The first words in the chapter about self-responsibility were, “To feel competent to live and worthy of happiness, I need to experience a sense of control over my existence. This requires that I be willing to take responsibility for my actions and the attainment of my goals.”
Up until that point, I was lamenting things that were out of my control. I couldn’t control the pandemic, schools closing, restaurants closing or anything like that. By focusing on those things, I mentally gave control over my happiness to other things. Reading the beginning of that chapter put a mental spotlight on what I can do with my resources to bring control to my life. The change had to start with me.
Gaining a sense of control through agency is not a new thing and it is secretly behind many coping mechanisms that people employ. In one study, U.S. college students were surveyed to see the effects of COVID-19 on their mental health and how they coped with it.
Many of the positive coping mechanisms were actions like maintaining a routine, writing in a journal and seeking support from others. Because all of these actions are self-driven, they could regain a sense of control over their lives. Self-responsibility, of course, is not the magic solution to fixing every mental health issue out there, but it can be an accessible step to making progress.
Through practicing self-responsibility, I was able to create some real positive change for myself. I joined online communities based on my interests, took part in online dance camps and reached out to different groups and people to find mental health support. I would not have been able to mentally survive this pandemic without these changes, but at the same time, I may have never changed without the pandemic.
2020 is going to be a year that many of us, including myself, will probably want to forget. It was riddled with strife, pain, sickness and every synonym in the thesaurus. However, what I do not want to forget is the lessons that I have learned through this struggle. As long as I go into this post-COVID world bringing this practice of self-responsibility with me, this quarantine will have had a “reason.”
Kenneth Moody is just trying to find a sliver of light in these dark times.