We tend to think that we have to earn self-kindness. That is, in order to be kind to ourselves, we must meet certain conditions. We must not make mistakes. We must work out five times a week. No exceptions. We must keep a tidy, organized home. We must make “healthy” meals. We must check off everything on our to-do list. We must excel at work, and produce, produce, produce. We cannot fail. Under any circumstances.
And if we don’t meet these conditions, then we punish ourselves. We wake up earlier and earlier. We work longer hours. We don’t rest. We don’t take any time for ourselves. Because we’re convinced we don’t deserve it. We talk to ourselves in ways we’d never talk to others. Because we’re convinced we deserve it.
Being kind can be hard, especially when we’re angry with ourselves, especially when we feel disappointed due to something we did—or didn’t do.
Many of us have to teach ourselves how to be self-compassionate. It feels that foreign, that far away. And that’s OK. Because self-compassion is actually a skill we can sharpen—whether we’ve bashed ourselves for years or not. The more you practice, the more you act with kindness, the more natural it becomes.
In her beautiful book The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart & Your World, clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Cousineau, Ph.D, shares an assortment of strategies to help us practice self-compassion—without any prerequisites (along with ways we can be kind to others). Below you’ll find four suggestions and insights from the book.
Speak sincere words of kindness. When creating your self-compassionate statements, be clear, be true to your experience and use a kind tone. For instance, when Cousineau was experiencing anxiety and self-doubt while writing her book, she came up with this statement: “I have a beautiful message to share with the world. I will speak my truth.”
She includes these other examples you might try: “Even though this feels hard, I will be gentle with myself”; “I’ve got this”; and “I will be OK.”
According to Cousineau, you can create your statement by asking yourself: “What do I need to feel calm in my body?” or “What do I yearn for from others?” When you find the right statements, you’ll know, because you’ll feel a wave of relief, inspiration or gratitude.
Savor touch. Touch signals our body’s soothing system, triggering positive feelings and a sense of safety, Cousineau writes. She suggests savoring sensations such as the warmth of a cup of tea; the water cascading down our skin during a shower; the softness of fleece. When you’re struggling, you can give yourself a hug, place your hand over your heart, or touch your face.
You also can figure out your optimal barometer for touch by considering these questions: Do you like to be touched or not really? Do you notice any changes in your mood, energy level and quality of your relationships related to the amount of touch you’ve received? In what situations do you desire touch, and in what situations do you avoid it? What things touch you emotionally?
Explore stress. Kindness is knowing ourselves, and tending to ourselves. One way we can do that is by exploring how stress affects us. Cousineau suggests this exercise: Think of a recent event that upset or stressed you out. Draw a stick figure or an outline of your body. Write or draw the sensations you experienced or are experiencing right now as you think of the event. Respond to these prompts, as well:
- “If stress were a color, it would be…
- The picture that comes to mind with the word ‘stress’ is …
- My stress symptoms include …
- I know I am stressed when I emotionally feel …
- The very first sign of stress is …
- When I’m stressed, my thinking becomes …
- Others can tell when I am stressed because I ….”
Once you identify how stress manifests for you, you can identify what will genuinely help and support you.
Delve deeper. To develop a deeper understanding of ourselves, Cousineau suggests reflecting on these questions: “What is one thing I can do today that will stretch my heart a bit wider? What does a meaningful life mean to me? What would I regret not doing at least once in my life? What would I die for? What am I most proud of? What am I grateful for? What is one habit I want to break, and what is one habit I want to create? What does ‘god’ or ‘spirit’ mean to me? When was the last time I said ‘I love you’ to those I care about? To myself?”
We don’t need to wait to be kind until we’ve supposedly done something worthy of compassion. We can make kindness part of our everyday. We can speak kindly and gently to ourselves, especially when we’re struggling. I’m upset, and it’s totally understandable. I’m having a rough day. I can’t stop crying, and that’s OK. I need to feel this. We can get to know ourselves on a profound level. We can tend to our needs, especially when we’re stressed, especially when we don’t perform or produce, especially when we fail.
Cousineau defines kindness as “love in action.” How can you act lovingly toward yourself today?