In my psychotherapy practice, I often guide my clients to a place of trying to be kinder to themselves. It seems like a very basic idea, but it is often met with some confusion on how that would be helpful. I believe that many people have been given the wrong message about what it means to be kind to yourself. I am often met with objections, the person does not want to be “lazy”, “stop trying”, or “let myself off the hook too much and stop caring”. There is a greater fear that if we are kinder to ourselves, we will give up and our lives will become out of control in some way. There is a lot of fear out there of the dreaded “lazy” label, and somehow we have all been trained that the way to avoid that is to be highly critical of ourselves and to push ourselves to try and meet unrealistic expectations, all with the intention of being productive and hard-working.
To put it simply, we’re getting it all wrong.
When we are kind and compassionate with ourselves, our brains open up. We are able to think critically, be attentive to problems, feel confident in being able to tackle big challenges, and we allow ourselves to nourish our minds and bodies. When we tackle challenges with reasonable expectations, we are able to be more thorough in our approach and generally handle that task with more skill and effectiveness. Backing away from an unrealistic challenge gives us the mental and physical energy to focus on the things that we truly have a chance to tackle effectively. Being kind to ourselves also puts us in a more positive mindset, which allows us to handle the unexpected with more flexibility and resiliency.
When we are unkind to ourselves, when we are highly self-critical or we take on an unrealistic number of tasks, our brain becomes rigid. We operate out of a place of fear, anxiety, and self-punishment. The “tough love” mentality is not something that should be used regularly. When we use “tough love” on ourselves, often it is done without the “love”. We focus on our weaknesses and convince ourselves that the only way to become better or stronger is to be critical and determine that our efforts are “not good enough”. This provides the illusion that we are motivating ourselves to do better. What is actually happening, is that it closes us off to the good kind of critical thinking. The kind of critical thinking that allows us to be creative problem solvers and able to handle the unexpected. We then operate more out of survival mode, doing just enough to make things ok but never really tackling the more in-depth roots of the problem. It also drains our brains and bodies of energy. Being unkind to ourselves takes a tremendous amount of energy to carry out. We will often take on too many tasks and ignore self-care. Sacrificing sleep for an important deadline is understandable occasionally, but if it becomes everyday life, there will be consequences for your mind and body. Being unkind to ourselves often means we ignore our human needs for a specific goal, and this is not sustainable.
This is what it REALLY means to be kind to yourself, and trust me, the desired end result is exactly what we have been striving for all along.
Being Kind to Yourself Means Acceptance
Acceptance is a huge part of being kind to yourself. We have to accept the good and the bad. If we are preparing for a performance and try to reject the pre-performance anxiety that we are experiencing, then we are rejecting a part of ourselves, making the anxiety more powerful. Accepting that anxiety is just a part of the process is a way of moving through it and minimizing its impact. If we accept our weaknesses, we can validate our own experiences, acknowledge what is difficult for us, and think of ways to work through it. If we reject our weaknesses (i.e. “I shouldn’t feel this way”), it will not lead to any meaningful changes.
Being Kind to Yourself Does Not Mean Resignation
Let’s all say it together, folks…. “Being kind to yourself is not the same as giving up”. Just because you attend to your needs and don’t berate yourself 50 times a day doesn’t mean you’re giving up on anything. It doesn’t mean you avoid challenges, or let things get out of control just because you don’t want to do something. It means sometimes you take breaks, sometimes you walk away from a challenge that needs to be walked away from, and sometimes you put your needs first. This will help you accomplish more and be more effective in what you do, it is not a way to get out of being challenged. You’ll just feel better doing it.
Being Kind To Yourself Means Avoiding Criticizing Your Core Sense of Self
It is common to take our weaknesses and mistakes and generalize them into bigger, grander statements of self-criticism. We are constantly trying to assess where we are and how we are doing. Often it is difficult to see a mistake as an isolated incident and we determine that we are just the type of person who is prone to these mistakes. We mistake behavior patterns for deep character flaws. Being kind to yourself means looking at the problem at hand and focusing on the solution or ways to heal whatever wounds were inflicted. Determining that we are hopelessly flawed will only lead to more negative criticism, and rarely leads to any kind of positive solution. It can be very productive to look for patterns of behaviors that we should be aware of, but again, approaching this task with a negative, self-critical lens will not help you make any changes. This is an area that can be helped greatly in therapy. It can be tough to do this completely by yourself.
Being Kind to Yourself Means Self-Care
We are human beings. Not robots or super-humans. It is important to pay attention to what self-care means for you as an individual. Not just the basic stuff, like eating and sleeping enough, but what are the things that help you feel centered and rejuvenated? We often sacrifice the activities that help us take care of our emotional needs for tasks that we feel are more “productive”. That is a surefire way of draining our mental energy reserves and leads to burn-out, feeling overly agitated or impatient, and overall feelings of unhappiness. Whether it’s playing a sport, creating art, reading, walking, yoga, or just making time to see friends, carving out small amounts of time for those things during our busy lives can make a world of difference. We have to value this time just as much as the time spent on our “To Do” list. These things don’t have to happen every day, but they do need to be on a fairly regular basis in order to be effective.