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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

The list went on and left me staring down a rabbit hole. I recognised, given my mental health history and predisposition towards depression, that I was in danger of freefalling into a dark abyss. I have seen how easily such thoughts could morph into You are useless. You are disgusting. You are irredeemable. And when this mutation runs its course, I am transformed into a self-loathing, self-destructive alter ego. As I stood at this precipice again, I had a decision to make: to pay heed to the taunts, or to tune in to the quiet voice.

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

At the hour of our death

I’ve been alive for just over twenty-seven years. “You’re still so young,” I’m told again and again. I think it’s implied that I still have a long way to go — many more people to meet, places to go, things to accomplish. But all the recent deaths young and old, within my immediate and not-so-immediate circles, have impressed upon me a reality universally acknowledged yet almost universally neglected: that death comes unannounced.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.” It rolls of the tongue so effortlessly, often thoughtlessly. But seven Sundays ago I uttered those exact words while standing next to my dying aunt, and I thought about what that meant. Death was so close, so imminent, so real. My aunt was in the final leg of her earthly sojourn. This could certainly be the hour of her death.

She was still conscious, but too weak to open her eyes or to speak. In the last week of her life, though surrounded by loved ones, there were no more two-way conversations nor instructions that could be communicated. Did she fear crossing over to the other side? Did she have any parting words left unsaid? Whatever was going on in her mind and heart, none of us was privy to it. It was solely between her and God.

This was to me a stark picture of the hour of one’s death — to have to reckon with the fact that we will depart from this life on our own. Even the best and most steadfast of friends and family won’t be accompanying us. They can go no further than being present at our deathbeds, if the opportunity presented itself at all. And yes, they will pray for us, but ultimately that step into the next life is one we will take on our own. And then we will meet God face to face, with no intermediary in the form of community, clergy, words, images, statues, songs, or the liturgy. How do we feel about that prospect?

Does it sound like homecoming? A reunion with our first love? The fulfilment of all we’ve been yearning and preparing for in this life?

I will meet the God I’ve professed to love. The God whom I’ve read about, talked about, written about. To whom I’ve addressed countless petitions during the darkest episodes of my life. But at the hour of my death, will I rejoice at the thought of meeting Him face to face? Or will I be filled with the dreadful realisation that I don’t know the One whom I am about to face?

My aunt didn’t go that very weekend, and I had to fly back to Singapore. It was Holy Week. On Holy Tuesday, I wept as I prayed for her at Mass. Not because I was worried about the state of her soul, since knew she’d always been steadfastly close to Our Lord, but because of the realisation of the seeming loneliness of the hour of her death. But somehow, something or someone wordlessly impressed deep in my soul that she would go on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death. I kept this in my heart and continued on with the subsequent days.

When I woke up on the morning of Good Friday, I read a text from my dad which said my aunt had passed on earlier that morning. It sounds inappropriate to rejoice at any death, but the instinctive reaction was happiness. I’m not the type to neurotically keep my eyes peeled for ‘signs’, but the news presented itself as an affirmation that she’s in good hands. She had suffered with Christ throughout Holy Week (and much of her life), and has died with Him, and will rise with Him. Surely that last leg of her journey couldn’t be adequately characterised as ‘lonely’. Surely it was a special privilege of uniting herself with Christ. In a hidden, intimate way. Yes, none of us were privy to it. It was between her and her God.

All of a sudden her departure made sense. And given what I know of her and the faith so dear to her, I couldn’t but believe she would have wanted this.

At the hour of my death, I may not be a saint. There will surely be some degree of fear.

But however death comes for me – be it expected or unexpected, sudden or gradual, excruciating or pain-free – I would like death to come not as an interruption, but a culmination. I would hope that no one laments the circumstances saying, “Oh, how cruel is death, to have taken her this way/at such a time.” I hope my departure will make sense. I hope I would have, by that time, figured out how to live in a way where you’d be able to say, “Ah, this is the moment she’s been living for.”

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Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

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Ink

When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression in 2013, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

Pablo_Picasso,_1902-03,_Femme_accroupie,_Crouching_Woman_(Woman_Sitting,_with_Hood),_oil_on_canvas,_90_x_71_cm,_Staatsgalerie,_Stuttgart
Detail of ‘Crouching Woman’ (1902) by Pablo Picasso

I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

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Detail of ‘Drowning Girl’ (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And that was how I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

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‘Christina’s World’ (1948) by Andrew Wyeth

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–St John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂

How do you identify your “passion”?

It’s no secret that I was, for a long time, feeling very lost in life. Unlike many people I know, I didn’t have an obvious passion or hobby, or something that’s enthralled me since childhood. This became a particularly huge source of distress during depressive episodes. If no one checked on me, I’d be confined to my bed for more than half the day, tormented by thoughts about being “useless”, “pathetic”, and “less than human” for not being driven.

Many people and many articles (like these) lead us to believe that our passion ought to be something in which we can lose ourselves, or something that allows us to forget everything else. And the appeal of distraction is particularly pertinent for those of us who are suffering. What helps me forget about my crippling insecurities? What helps me forget about all the craziness and pain in the world?

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But I don’t want that. And I don’t think anyone should. I am seeking something that, contrary to helping me forget the world, would help me understand my place in this world. Not something that blinds me to the suffering in this world, but something that allows me to understand suffering and play a part in healing it.

It becomes apparent that this becomes so much more than a search for a hobby. We are on a quest for Truth.

I don’t want to be protected from the anxiety of mortal existence, I want to understand and overcome it. I absolutely hate being told not to question things too much, not to think too much. Most people who say that are entirely well-meaning. They are worried that these thoughts would lead me down an abyss of hopelessness. But they’re assuming that these questions would lead me to a dark and terrifying place — perhaps the realization that everything is ultimately futile and meaningless.

But I believe that Truth is found where God is — and because the God I know is good, in Him I will find truths that are good and beautiful. Slowly, but surely, I’ve been grasping more and more of this in my journey of faith.

In some ways, I’m thankful for my depression. While it’s no fun being tormented by negative thoughts and emotions 24/7, being depressed forces me to beg for answers to questions that really matter. Why am I suffering? Why is there suffering? Is life even worth living? Why am I alive? What does this all mean? As J. David Franks puts it poetically (in the foreword to The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak): “…some are dragged entirely into the vortex of the world’s pain. To be depressed is to be a wound open to the stinging air of reality…The depressed stand on the marches of the world, where the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm the bright little circle of life we enjoy.”

Unable to run away from pain, I had to (and am continuing to) seek to understand its meaning and purpose. And you don’t have to be depressed to seek as well.

Related post: Who do you live for?

Hello, dear strangers on the same train!

How is it that of 300 or so subscribers to my blog, there are at least a hundred I haven’t met in real life? I definitely wasn’t expecting this when I first started this blog 3 months ago.

Last night, a good friend remarked that this recent post was a breath of fresh air. “It’s nice when you post about less heavy stuff once in a while,” he said. I suppose as blog followers began expanding beyond my little social circle, I subconsciously began cutting out potential posts that would be irrelevant to a readership that probably looks something like this:

blogreadership - Plain

There are other spaces for college rants and food cravings and other self-indulgent posts, I thought, like Facebook. But then I realized, for people who don’t know me in real life, I must come across as either (A) a super intense person,  or (B) someone who takes herself too seriously. Well, in a sense, B is kind of true — I take myself very seriously — but the same way I (try to) take others very seriously, and C.S. Lewis puts it really well: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendor.” Sorry, that escalated quickly. But seriously, though.

Let me end on a lighthearted note, with another random recording my friend Ben and I made over the weekend.

Colors of the Wind! What could be more lighthearted than Disney? (Maybe try to ignore the possibility that this song could be an environmentalist’s anthem, or an attack on white supremacy…)

But thank you, thank you for your interest in the things I write/post. It’s been a huge encouragement to know that I have thoughts and life experiences that are worth sharing. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading about yours too. 🙂 Even if we don’t know each other, I’m thankful for the common calling(s) we share, wherever you find yourself in that Venn diagram.

Life isn’t what you make it

As much as we’re told that “life is what you make it”, that phrase could not be farther from the truth. The present life we’re living, wherever we’re reading this right now, is collectively made possible by our parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, bosses, doctors, firefighters, law enforcers, lawmakers, ancestors, founding fathers…..and lastly, ourselves.

Nothing apart from the decisions we make is inherently, wholly ours.

First and foremost, we’re alive today because we were each given a shot at life. We had the support of individuals (biologically related or not), groups, communities, and/or institutions that believed that we — though weak, voiceless, defenseless, even useless — were of value and had rights as members of a just and humane society.

We were cared for, taught the ways of survival, of weathering storms, of overcoming obstacles, defying odds, of discovering and pursuing our passions, until we’re ready to take those training wheels off. We then embraced the independence to carve out our own lives, and the freedom to do as we please. But never at the expense of others, because we remember to love and respect the way we were loved and respected for simply being human. We give others a chance to find their way the way we were given chance after chance.

Let’s consider our own profound indebtedness before we  make judgments about whether someone would be worthy recipient of society’s resources, or make assumptions about whether someone would be able to live a fulfilling life. If one is given the resources that will enable them to overcome and flourish, they will.

The greatest of these resources are love and respect, and the most basic of these is a chance at life. And when they no longer need their training wheels, they will pass them on to those who do. May this be the kind of society, the kind of human race we are proud to be members of.

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Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.”   –Malcolm Muggeridge