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The struggle for self-compassion

A few months ago, I turned 29. I’m embarrassed to admit that it bothered me a great deal. If you’re older than I am, I forgive you for rolling your eyes. As for those of you around my age, I hear your nervous chuckle!

We often hear the assertion that age is but a number, but for many of us each subsequent number serves as a checkpoint: what have I achieved in N number of years? Sure enough, on the morning of my birthday, I woke up feeling weighed down by a litany of personal failings and should-haves. 29. Should have gotten a promotion by now. Should have gotten published by now. Should have started a family by now. Should have resolved this conflict by now. Should have gotten over those vices by now. Should have become a better person by now.

‘After the ball’ (1899) by Ramon Casas

This quiet voice was one I discovered only after more than five years of weaving in and out of depressive episodes. With the help of my therapist, I recently came to recognise that I possessed two voices: a condemning voice and a compassionate voice. The condemning voice is loud, brash, and unrelenting. And because I had given it authority over most of my life, it has no qualms about shouting over all other thoughts and making its presence felt in any situation. I had unknowingly given it free rein to be my internal judge, jury and executioner.

The compassionate voice, on the other hand, is quiet and unassuming. It is easily overpowered and requires a lot more effort to discern from the noise.

For many years I neglected this quiet voice. Not because I didn’t know it existed, but because I viewed it with suspicion and distrust. To me, self-compassion was synonymous with self-deception. To be forgiving of my flaws and failings meant to sweep them under a rug and move through life wearing a veneer of saintliness. I also saw it as cowardice, because it meant not facing the truth of my own depravity. It was for these same reasons that I distrusted medication throughout my first few years of struggling with bipolar disorder. I believed I deserved to suffer as a consequence of my own wickedness, so to do anything to alleviate my pain would be to live in denial. Hence I could not, in good conscience, exercise ‘self-compassion’, be it accepting the medical help that I desperately needed, or simply speaking to myself with kindness.

But I have since arrived at a better understanding of self-compassion. Far from delusional, self-compassion is honest: it gives me permission to acknowledge my flaws, yet without dismissing the possibility of growth. Far from cowardly, it is courageous: it beckons me to stop slinking away from life, and to stand tall and tackle obstacles even with all my imperfections. It is also humble: while pride listens to no other voice but its own, self-compassion is vulnerable and teachable.

‘The birthday’ (1905) by Paul Fischer

As I stood at the precipice of my 29th-birthday crisis, I chose to tune in to the quiet voice. It is true that I had not accomplished many of the things I imagined I would have before 30. But life has turned out to be too great a mystery to be measured by the rubrics determined by my younger self. Among other unexpected turns in life, the onset of mental illness at the age of 22 might have derailed me from my pre-written script, yet it also opened the door to a different adventure. I have struggled more than I ever thought I would; but those very struggles endowed me with a strength and grit I never knew could be mine. They also made me more compassionate person who is attentive to those who are forgotten, which led me to become a special education teacher, a vocation I have fallen in love with. I also emerged with the humility to receive help, to be corrected, to forgive myself and others, and to always leave the door open for healing and reconciliation. Listening to the quiet voice helped me to see that life is much more than what I have (or have not) accomplished – it is about what I have received, what I have given, how I have grown and helped others grow.

The checklist of goals set by my younger self remains, but without the anxiety of it determining my life’s worth. After all, at the end of this life I would like to take with me not a checklist, but a full heart enriched by love, humility, hope, and courage. Perhaps 29 signals much more than the end of my 20s, but a new beginning.


This essay was first published on The Tapestry Project SG – an independent, non-profit online publication that aims to restore hope and reclaim dignity through the sharing of first person mental health narratives.


Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.

St. Francis of Assisi

Christmas: the foolishness and weakness of God

Love sometimes does strange things. It takes great risks and goes to extreme lengths that many would call foolish. On that first Christmas day, God’s foolishness was wiser than men, and His weakness was stronger than men. It took them all by surprise.

But this, of course, was part of God’s strategy. The element of surprise is critical in warfare. And Christmas was an act of warfare. In fact it was D-Day, the day of deliverance. The preparation had taken centuries, but now it was time for the Conqueror to land on enemy occupied territory. He came in humility, and would finish the conquest thirty years later by the greatest act of humility the world had ever seen.

–Marcellino D’Ambrosio

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Wishing everyone a merry Christmas from Hanoi, Vietnam!

(Pictured above: Christmas morning mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi)

Learning to love my name again

Since day 1 I’ve observed how students love doodling their own names. That’s the first thing many of them do given any downtime, boys and girls alike. Along the margins of their notebooks you’ll find their names in cursive, block letters, graffiti-style…

More recently, my colleague had the brilliant idea of creating an “Honor Roll” board to put up the names of students who are getting the target minimum B in their regular Math class. Everyone got busy writing their names on individual notecards. Boy did that activity take much longer than expected. For the first time, some were meticulously using their best penmanship, even decorating the borders and background, and asking to start over on a fresh card when they messed up. A far cry from the pages of their Math notebooks (you’d think they’re deliberately trying to veer as far from the margins as possible…).

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I mentioned this “phenomenon” to my RCIA instructor, who pointed out that name-writing is a powerful form of self-identity and self-expression . It makes sense that this impetus would be particularly strong during formative and experimental teenage years.

Your name represents you. It’s how you represent yourself to others, as well as to yourself, and is something people associate with you. While deep in depression, I developed a profound shame of my own name.

I wasn’t too surprised by how I hated seeing myself in the mirror — that happened the previous two time I was depressed and was a natural consequence of an unhealthy self-esteem. What was new this time round was how I hated seeing my name, hearing my name, and worst of all having to say my name.

While deep in depression, I had neither the mental energy nor agility to understand why this was happening. It’s clear to me now. I had come to attach my name to everything I have done, but most of all my failures and mistakes.

I had come to despise my own existence. And your name, after all, is like footprints of your existence — it’s attached to virtually everything you’ve done: essays, standardized tests, consent forms, report cards, college applications, job applications, diplomas, awards, text correspondences, email correspondences, credit card purchases…

Since I was so plagued by overwhelming shame for everything I have ever said and done, I naturally began to be ashamed of my name. It is nothing less than soul-crushing to come face-to-face with your own name, one with which you’ve lived for more than two decades, and find that you’ve done nothing but sabotage and tarnish your own legacy.

Meeting new people was torture because it meant having to introduce myself. I’d reached a point where I’d begun to feel alienated from my own name. Saying my name had become like saying the name of an enemy! I hated having to wear my name tag at work. I squirmed in the inside whenever I had to introduce myself to colleagues and students. It made it hard to be fully present in any situation when you’re subconsciously trying to dissociate yourself from your name, your identity.

But as I make my journey toward full recovery, I am learning to be kind to myself. I am learning that there’s a depressed Karen, a non-depressed Karen. A proud Karen, a humble Karen. An insecure Karen, a confident Karen. A selfish Karen, a selfless Karen. A Karen who makes mistakes, a Karen who does things right. A hypocritical Karen, a genuine Karen. A Karen who wasted many opportunities, and a Karen who is learning from her mistakes. A Karen crippled by doubt, a Karen who walks by faith.

I am not perfect. I don’t mean to say that to suggest that I’ll just have to live with that. Instead, I am saying this: every up and down, every failure and success, is an important part of my journey toward becoming the Karen that God created and ultimately desires me to be.

Hear me, coastlands, listen, distant peoples. Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

I will end with this beautiful passage taken from The Inner Voice of Love, the “secret journal” of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who went through a debilitating cycle of depression:

There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgent, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. You can tell your story from the place where it no longer dominates you. You can speak about it with a certain distance and see it as the way to your present freedom. The compulsion to tell your story is gone. From the perspective of the life you now live and the distance you now have, your past does not loom over you. It has lost its weight and can be remembered as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding toward others.

Can you identify with any of this? Have you ever attached shame to your own name? What’s the story?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me “an innocent in hell”

Depression taught me to love the developmentally disabled

The title of this post was originally going to be “How I came to empathize with the developmentally disabled”. Then I realized I had no right to use the word “empathize”, because I have never walked a day in their shoes, and will never fully empathize. But I’m writing this because I believe my depression offered me a small window into the world of those who know they are different from the majority, those who feel incapable of fully participating in society. My last two cycles of clinical depression taught me to have compassion for those for whom such struggles are part of an inescapable reality.

Depression affects everyone differently. A recurring theme for me is being robbed of many cognitive, social, and emotional abilities. While I haven’t figured out how much of it is real, and how much simply a matter of distorted perception, it all seemed to me like an objective, permanent reality (and there was no talking me out of it — just ask my therapist, my family, my then-boyfriend, and my close friends).

I distinctly remember what it was like being at a friend’s 21st birthday party. I excused myself to go to the bathroom many more times than necessary, all to avoid having to converse with another person. I don’t know how to hold a conversation. I wouldn’t know how to respond and react appropriately. All it would take is one sentence or one stammer and I’d be exposed. They would know I’m a freak. And then they would either walk away, or at best they might stay out of pity.

At the dinner table, I freaked out when an academic asked me what I was majoring in in college. I knew that the moment I said Sociology, he would follow up with a question that would expose my ignorance and my failure to understand my own discipline. And I dreaded how everyone at the party would inevitably ask, “Where do you go to school?” Because I knew what they’d expect when I told them I went to the University of Chicago. They’d expect me to be intelligent and insightful, and I would hopelessly fall short. I didn’t even dare to talk to the little children at the party, believing that I would be looked down upon even by those a whole decade younger than me.

There was one partygoer different from everybody else, an elderly lady with Down Syndrome. I quietly watched how she stared into space most of the time, and how her relatives coaxed her into standing in the right place when the time came to take a group picture. I felt a profound sense of affinity with her. Though I wasn’t sure how aware she was of her own disability, I yearned to commiserate with her. It’s okay, I don’t belong here either. I don’t know what these people are talking about either. I don’t know why they’re enjoying themselves either. This world is a strange and scary place. 

It wasn’t just in public. I found this picture of me (in green) and my sisters watching Midnight In Paris at my apartment.

You can’t tell from looking at the picture, but while my sisters both loved the movie (as do most who’ve seen it), to me it was torture. I couldn’t really pay attention to the plot or dialogue — I was too busy feeling tortured about not being able to identify with the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of the characters in the film. The credits rolled and I had no idea what the movie was about.

And here’s a picture taken on graduation day.

graduationIt’s an iteration of classic goofy shot I often took with my friends. Except this time, it wasn’t funny to me because all I could think of was how I would ever justify being a UChicago graduate when I was so “dumb”, when I could function neither in the classroom nor in the real world, when I believed my life was “over” because I’d never be able to get/hold a job or start a family in the future. Not long after this picture was taken, I began going around saying my goodbyes as if I’d never see many of these people ever again, as I was planning to go into reclusion for good.

And as I come out of depression, as my mental agility, emotional energy, and ability to relate to other people are coming back, I haven’t been able to forget how lonely and out of place I felt all those months. Those feelings of not belonging in the world, of not being able to live up to the expectations of society, of being defective in every way, of being a mistake amidst all of God’s perfect creations, will always remain fresh in me.

And this is the story of how God humbled me, and instilled in me new and deep love and compassion for those labeled by society as “defective”, or “different” at best. I invite you to reflect on how you’ve perceived or treated our brothers and sisters who don’t meet the constructed, arbitrary standards of beauty, success, and normalcy.

If you personally know what it’s like to have a developmental disability of any kind, or if you know someone who does, I would be honored to hear about and learn from your experiences.

Related post: Those with “special needs” can teach us a thing or two about humanity