Nine Ways To Be Kind To Yourself and Why It’s ImportantMarch 29, 2021
As an example of how to be kind to yourself - Kelly (not her real name) walked into my office with tears in her eyes. “I need to be tougher,” she said, “I hate myself for being so weak. I keep letting my siblings take advantage of me. I’m doing all of the work to care for Mom. I hate that I’m such a wimp.”
Kelly was going through a very trying time: caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, grieving a difficult break-up with a long-term partner, and navigating the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic. I observed Kelly’s reaction to her struggle: it was not one of self-compassion and kindness, but rather one of self-criticism and punishment. Basically, she was shaming herself for her feelings and actions. This is only one example of how to be kind to yourself is important.
Does this reaction sound familiar to you? Do you tend to meet your struggles with self-criticism rather than self-compassion and kindness? Are you “hard on yourself” or “your own worst enemy?” If so, please read on: self-compassion is a skill that can be learned with a bit of mindfulness and practice, and there are a multitude of benefits.
Why Self-Compassion and Kindness?
Much research has focused on the many benefits of treating oneself with compassion and kindness. According to researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the practice of self-compassion is associated with increased life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, interconnectedness, wisdom, curiosity, happiness, resilience, and optimism.
Additionally, self-compassion is directly linked to reduced depression, anxiety, self-criticism, and fear of failure (Neff, 2009). You might be thinking, “Sounds great, but how do I change my hard-wired self-criticism into kindness and compassion?”
Nine Ways to Practice Self-Compassion and Kindness
We are very complex creatures, so a comprehensive practice of self-compassion includes strategies that are mental, physical, and emotional in nature. Mental strategies involve noticing and changing our self-critical thoughts. Physical strategies involve caring for and nourishing our bodies. Emotional strategies use relationships (with self and others) to foster positive feelings. Examples of all three are below:
Without judgment, notice your thoughts. The first step to adopting self-kindness is noticing your self-critical thoughts. Be a curious, non-judgmental observer of the running commentary in your mind. Write the thoughts down. For example, Kelly might observe the thoughts, “I hate myself for being so weak,” and “I’m such a wimp.”
Next, ask yourself, “What would I say to a dear friend in the same situation?” Odds are, you would respond to a friend with kindness, care, and encouragement. Intentionally speak to yourself as you would speak to a beloved friend. For example, Kelly might replace her unkind thoughts with, “I’m doing the best I can under difficult circumstances,” “I’m working with my therapist to be more assertive,” and “I deserve kindness and compassion.”
Memorize a kind, self-compassionate mantra to use when you catch yourself using critical self-talk. For example, you might respond to self-criticism with, “This is a moment of pain, which all people experience. I send myself love and compassion.”
Put your hand on your heart and send yourself love, kindness, and compassion. Close your eyes and feel the warmth that you are sending yourself. Slowly and rhythmically, breathe kindness and self-love into your heart.
This practice is associated with the release of oxytocin, a chemical that relieves stress and promotes relaxation, calmness, and feelings of safety. You'll be able to avoid stress-eating.
Rest when you need it. We live in a world that praises people for driving themselves to exhaustion, both mentally and physically.
Self-kindness calls us to reject this unhealthy message and respond to our exhaustion with care: take a nap, go to bed early, or simply lie down and rest. Be proud that you have chosen “rest over running on empty.”
Move your body in a joyful and empowering way, especially if you have self-critical thoughts and feelings about your body. Take a walk in nature, dance, swim, do yoga, lift weights….engage in any activity that allows you to feel joy, strength, and empowerment.
Thank your body for what it allows you to do each day.
Respond to negative emotions with mindfulness meditation. When you are experiencing challenging feelings, resist the urge to temporarily bury them with distractions. Instead, do a guided mindfulness meditation (there are many exercises available online, free of charge).
Regular mindfulness meditation retrains the brain to be non-judgmental and compassionate and is directly associated with reduced anxiety and depression.
Set healthy boundaries. An important part of self-kindness is learning to say “no” to others when their requests and expectations are unhealthy for you. Boundary setting involves first noticing when a request/expectation elicits feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, or anxiety.
For example, Kelly might notice that she feels angry at her siblings for expecting her to assume such a large role in their mother’s care. Next, boundary-setting includes sending an assertive, healthy message about one’s needs and wants. Kelly might say to her siblings, “I can help on Monday and Friday, but I have other commitments on Tuesday and Wednesday. I cannot do those days. Which of those days will you do?”
Healthy boundary-setting can be challenging, especially if you grew up in a household that was lacking in such. I encourage you to enlist the help of a therapist if you could benefit from some boundary-setting assistance. After all, going to therapy is another great practice of self-kindness and care!
Spend time with people who bring you up. Few things affect our emotions as greatly as the energy of the people around us.
To treat yourself with kindness, actively notice how the people in your life make you feel. After being with someone, do you feel anxious, judged, or exhausted? Or do you feel warm, fulfilled, and joyful?
Take stock of the feelings that people elicit and minimize your time with “energy drainers” while increasing time with “bucket fillers.”
I am happy to report that Kelly has made great strides in treating herself with kindness and care. She has set boundaries with her siblings and is working hard to respond to her critical self-talk with compassion.
Additionally, she has started a meditation practice and enjoys weekly nature walks with a good friend. I sincerely hope that you will experiment with the strategies above and find a “Self-Kindness Practice” that works for you too.
- Neff, K.D. (2009). Self-Compassion. In M.R. Leary and R.H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (pp. 561-573). New York: Guilford Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHORTanie Miller Kabala, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and integrative wellness coach who specializes in treating weight loss surgery patients. She wrote her book, The Weight Loss Surgery Coping Companion: A Practical Guide to Coping with Post-Surgery Emotions to help patients navigate the emotional journey of weight loss surgery. Read more articles by Tanie!