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It is not selfish to be upset

I am learning to show myself empathy

<p>Emma Keller is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.</p>

Emma Keller is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Early last week, I was sitting in my room, blasting music through my headphones and contemplating my current existence, which I am sure many of you have been doing as well. Looking back on this, I think it is safe to say that the early 2000s pop-punk music I was shoving into my ears amplified my already sour mood. As soon as my parents asked me if I was doing OK, I popped the cork on my bottled up emotions and let it all out at the dinner table. 

I was angry and sad, but I had been pretending that I was fine. I let a few frustrated tears slide down my face and then apologized for letting my emotional guard down — as I feel we women often do. I told my family what had been going on inside my head for the majority of the last two months. I told them how upset I was that things I had worked so hard on — like planning events on Grounds and getting a summer internship — were imploding right before my eyes. 

I had kept these things to myself because I know there are much bigger problems in the world than my shortened college experience and the possibility of my internship in Nashville being canceled. People are dying, families are being torn apart and normal life for everyone around the globe has been put on pause. Who am I to mope about my problems when there are millions of other people suffering? What right do I have to be upset when I have a roof over my head and food on my table? I am not a fourth-year who has lost a May graduation, a senior in high school who has no prom or an essential worker who has lost the ability to be in the same room as their family. 

There are thousands of people losing their livelihoods — and their lives — to COVID-19 every day. There are millions of Americans going without income and trying to receive unemployment benefits — more than 26 million in the last five weeks alone. The effects of this pandemic are absolutely horrible and heartbreaking, and it is really difficult to imagine life going back to “normal” any time soon.

We must show empathy and compassion to each other in order to make it through this. For the first time in my lifetime — and in many of yours — we are all collectively experiencing the effects of COVID-19 and navigating our lives in a new way. The world is truly going through this together, and there is no time more valuable than now to show someone that you understand and that you care. 

But I would not be human if I was not thinking of myself and my problems as well. Because I am human and not Clark Kent, I realized that I also deserve time to grieve and space to process my disappointments. Just as we must show empathy towards each other, we have to show empathy to ourselves. We must remember that our emotions are still valid and that our personal disappointments are still real — even if it feels like we feel we have lost much less than others. Ignoring our feelings and pushing them down as I did could result in spontaneous combustion — perhaps fueled by pop-punk music.

Even as I am writing this column, thoughts like, “Does this sound selfish?” and “I hope I do not sound self-absorbed” are still in the back of my head. It takes so much reprogramming to get rid of the “put on a tough face” mentality and to believe that we actually are allowed to feel our feelings. 

Do not get me wrong — there is a difference between allowing yourself to feel the weight of your emotions and being self-absorbed and indifferent to the rest of the world. But I think most people get it confused — myself included — and think that concerning yourself with yourself means that you are selfish. Sometimes it feels like if I am not thinking of others, I am not doing enough. 

It has taken me a long time to realize that this kind of thinking is unsustainable. I do not think I would have realized it at all if it were not for my parents who reminded me that it’s okay to be upset. So, if no one has told you this yet, allow me to be the first to pass on the message my parents gave me — “it is not selfish to be upset.” We are not in some kind of “oppression Olympics.” 

The oppression Olympics mentality implies that the effects of our individual struggles can be measured and placed on a linear spectrum, in which we compare our struggles to someone else’s. If someone’s problems seem “worse,” we often refuse to allow our own problems to matter. In reality, our individual struggles and personal disappointments are relative to so many different factors and contexts. For instance, my twelve-year-old sister’s priorities and the weight of her disappointments are impacting her much differently than my own currently unachieved goals and priorities. It is not right nor fair to equate and compare our pain, which is why empathy — towards others and ourselves — is so important.

If you have not paused to think about what you personally have lost, if you have not put yourself and your feelings first in a while, I am giving you the green light — be upset. Unbottle those emotions, mourn the seven weeks we lost this semester, be upset that your events got canceled and feel the frustration that comes with not knowing what comes next. You deserve to. 

However, after all that pent-up disappointment and frustration is released from our systems, it is time to focus on something new. One thing that has really helped me channel my emotions and reflect more deeply is journaling. Starting a journal serves as an outlet for me to voice my pain and write down my problems. It also has become a fun way for me to document what life looks like for me right now. I look forward to opening up my “quarantine journal” 15 years from now and remembering what mattered most to me in the middle of this global crisis.

If journaling is not your thing, perhaps talking to someone would be the best way to grieve, reflect and move past your disappointments. If you prefer taking action, look for ways to actively practice empathy in your current environment. Lend a gloved hand or a shoulder to someone who needs support right now. Support could look like asking your neighbor what they need from the grocery store or calling someone you have not reached out to in a while. Do whatever feels right to you — just keep it six feet apart, please.

I am not sure that my parents knew how much I needed to hear that I could be upset when they asked me if I was okay. I am not sure if any of you or your friends need to hear this now. But because we are wired to be tough, to put on a brave face and to suck it up, I want to remind you one last time — it is not selfish to be upset. You owe it to yourself to put yourself first, and I owe it to myself too. 

Emma Keller is a Life Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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