How to be Kind to Yourself
One of the biggest impacts on our mental wellbeing is how we treat ourselves.
Take a moment to think about how you treat yourself when you make a mistake, fail to reach a goal, or things go wrong. If, like me and most people, you have an unforgiving inner critic, beating you up and filling your head with negative thoughts – “you were rubbish at that…” or “you’ll never be able to do that…” and so on – then you could use a little more self-compassion in your life.
The more we get stuck giving ourselves a hard time, ruminating and thinking negatively, the closer we get to a downward spiral leading us to a loss of confidence, anxiety and depression.
Most of us have never learned how to have compassion for ourselves. If we spoke to our friends the way you speak to ourselves, we wouldn’t have any!
We need to develop a more compassionate approach to ourselves and our difficulties that will instantly improve our mental wellbeing and happiness. Think about how you actually speak to people you love and care about. We are much more forgiving and kind. We offer encouragement and support. We are compassionate. We need to be like this with ourselves too.
This isn’t about escaping difficult realities of what it means to be human in our world, but it is about reframing how we think, feel and understand our realities. Self-compassion means being gentle, kind and understanding with yourself; accepting that you aren’t perfect; and understanding that there is potential for learning and growth in every mistake you make.
Why does this happen?
We have three basic emotion systems – threat, drive and soothing, each with different functions and emotions to go with it:
- Threat system – function to manage threats, protect, survive and seek safety.
- Drive system – function to achieve goals, consume and accomplish tasks.
- Soothing system – function to slow down, soothe, rest, feel safe, be kind and care.
Although we might not realise it, the 3 systems get out of balance and many of us spend most of our time in threat and drive which can lead to unbalanced emotions and distress. This is because our brains are set up to be “better safe than sorry” and are very threat and drive sensitive, focusing in on the negatives in life. In an evolutionary sense, this was helpful, allowing our ancestors to notice and survive danger. However, in our modern world it is more problematic, as our brains seem to find it easier to learn to be fearful, angry, and upset than happy and content. This is not our fault – none of us choose the brains we were born with!
Why will self-compassion help and how can I be more self-compassionate?
We can regulate our threat and drive systems by switching on and developing our soothing system through self-compassion. Research shows us that affection and kindness are very important to humans and that it actually affects how our brains develop. There are special areas in the brain and particular hormones which respond to the kindness of others, self-compassion, and self-kindness.
Here are some ways to practice self-compassion. We are all different, so different things will help each of us. See what works for you and practice. Before you start though, you must value compassion. Sometimes we worry that if we are compassionate to ourselves, we are somehow weak or lack the drive to succeed. This isn’t the case. It’s about switching on our soothing system, not turning off our threat and drive system. Learning to be compassionate can make us stronger and feel more confident.
- Get in touch with your inner compassionate self – this refers to your inner voice, and changing the way you speak to yourself – softening your inner critic! When you’re practicing self-compassion, treat yourself the way you’d treat someone you respect and appreciate – with kindness, encouragement, and support. Imagine how a ‘compassionate you’ might look and feel e.g. relaxed posture, friendly facial expression, warm and open voice, soothing breathing rhythm, and an inner sense of calm. It helps to get into your compassionate mindset each morning. Try this short 3-step process to start your day and switch on your compassion:
Breathe as you wake up to engage a soothing rhythm – e.g. count in for 4 and out for 4. Focus on the out-breath keeping it smooth.
Welcome yourself to the day like you would a good friend, bring a half-smile to your face, and use your friendly tone.
Imagine for 1-2 minutes how your day will look if you show self-compassion. How will you talk? How will you respond to others? How will you act and feel?
Build up to repeating this daily. When we welcome ourselves in this way we’re giving ourselves the best chance to be self -compassionate all day.
- Practice Forgiveness – don’t punish yourself for your mistakes. Accept that you aren’t perfect and be gentle with yourself when you are confronted with your shortcomings. Instead of berating yourself each time you mess up, say, “I’m human and make mistakes. I forgive myself. What can I learn from this?” And then let it go. You are valued by your friends and colleagues because of who you are, not because you’re faultless. One way to remind yourself that you’re worthy, even when you’re not performing well, is to put a sticky note near your desk or in your wallet with a message reminding you to be gentle and kind with yourself.
- Express Gratitude -Research shows us that a focus on what’s good or going well balances out the natural human tendency to look for what’s wrong. The amount of water in the glass is the same whether we see it as half-full or half-empty! So, rather than wishing for what you don’t have, there is strength in appreciating what you do have right now. You can write a gratitude journal or go for a gratitude walk. By focusing on the positives, we employ a gentler inner voice and move the focus away from our shortcomings and the negatives.
- Accept yourself – there may be many things about ourselves that we might want to change and sometimes it is helpful to do that, however, we must learn to accept ourselves as we are – recognising our imperfections and efforts. “You aren’t perfect. And yes, you possibly could have done better, but chances are you did just fine and that OK.” Give yourself encouragement. Think of what you’d say to a friend and then use the same compassionate responses on yourself.
- Empathy for ourselves – we have deeply rooted values and beliefs about ourselves and our life experiences that are difficult to change, but self-compassion can help us lessen the impact they have on us. This involves finding new ways to cope with unpleasant memories, thought, feelings, events, and relationships. Learn to notice difficult emotions and thoughts as they arise, connect with them, tolerate them and then accept rather than deny and judge them.
- Be Mindful – research shows us that mindfulness has benefits in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. It lessons self-judgment. Being mindful means being more aware of what is around us – what we can see, hear, touch and taste. And what is happening inside – our thoughts and feelings. It’s about learning to observe all this but not getting caught up in thinking or worrying about it, so being able to choose what we then attend to. Allow what you think or feel to have its moment; don’t give it the microphone or hide it in the corner. Allow it to come and then, without attachment, let it go. It’s a skill anyone can learn. Just a few minutes of mindful activity each day can help, such as focusing on your breathing or on what you can hear, see, taste, smell, and touch.
- Be a measured giver – this is about getting a balance between being a ‘giver’ or a ‘taker’. Giving is a great way of showing compassion, however, you can fall into a pattern of selfless giving that ignores your own needs. For generosity to work for your well-being, it cannot be selfless. So, when being generous, make sure you are aware of your own needs and consciously check the resources you have and your level of energy based on what will support your own well-being too.
- Comfort your body – eat something healthy. Massage your own neck, feet or hands. Lie down and rest or take a walk. Anything you do to improve how you feel physically gives you a boost of self-compassion.
- Compassionate letter writing – writing down your concerns and worries can help get them off your chest and defuse feelings and stop you ruminating over something. It slows your thinking down in a way that isn’t possible in your head. It makes you more reflective and thoughtful and may give you new insight into an issue and ideas that might be helpful. Think of a situation that caused you to feel pain and write a letter to yourself describing the situation. Get into the zone first by using some mindfulness or soothing rhythm breathing and bring to mind your compassionate self. In your letter you need to recognise your courage and coping with the situation, explain to yourself that your difficulties and current ways of coping are understandable and not your fault, but recognise the costs of coping this way such as the pain and distress. Describe what you need to help you cope now and identify the thoughts and behaviours that will help you face this in a different, self-compassionate way, and what the benefits to you will be.
Whatever tips you take from the above, remember not to lose sight of where you fit into the bigger picture of your life. It’s often too easy to look to others and their needs, forgetting how to look after yourself in the process.