Many of us can connect with the aspiration to be kind to others - we can see that as a valuable and worthy endeavor, we have histories that suggest it brings happiness to others and contentment to ourselves. It's common that our growing years gave us instruction and positive reinforcement in extending kindness outside of ourselves, and that our adult lives support the idea as well. For many of us, the message received along the way is: being kind = good.
Seemingly far less common is the aspiration and commitment to extend such kindness towards ourselves. This practice - that of true self-compassion - doesn't commonly receive the social support that kindness to others enjoys. Perhaps we've played with the practice in a self-help context, or occasionally at the suggestion of a close friend or therapist who cares for us. Perhaps we've associated self-kindness and self-compassion with self-absorption. Perhaps we've heard or believed that it's selfish to prioritize practicing kindness towards ourselves. For many of us, the message might go something like:
self-kindness = selfish waste of time.
In the interest of assisting an exploration of your current views and habits, I invite you to sit quietly for a few moments in a place without distraction and answer the following questions:
(extra bonus points for writing your answers in a journal for ongoing reflection!)
How often do I speak to myself in ways I would never consider addressing a close friend?
How often do I (internally or out loud) deride my own mind, body, or personality?
How often do I suggest that, in order for me to be worthy, lovable or even tolerated, something about myself must be hidden, altered, or eradicated?
And then, placing your pen down for a moment, invite yourself to engage your body in this query. Allow yourself to first feel the answers fully, then take up your pen and write your answers:
How does having these thoughts and doing these things make me feel?
How do my mind and body respond to these messages? What happens in my chest, in my belly, or my breath, when I think, say and do these things?
Now, place your pen down, and take a moment to thank yourself for taking the time to look inward and explore your thoughts and feelings. This is an act of self-care. Acknowledge it, celebrate it!
We are the greatest artists of our own emotional environment.
Are we, through our words and actions, creating a world for ourselves that we actually want to live in? Our thoughts actively influence and create our emotions. Our emotions actively influence and change the structure of our brains. Because our brains have enormous capacity to learn and change, we can, by changing how we think and speak towards ourselves, change our brains and change our worlds. Rather than evaluating self-kindness from a moral perspective or even from a personality-improvement perspective, let's instead focus on the biological effects it produces.
"Emotions have global effects, since they organize the brain as a whole. Consequently, positive feelings have far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system (Frederickson 2000) and a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress (Frederickson and Levenson 1998). They lift your mood; increase optimism, resilience, and resourcefulness; and help counteract the effects of painful experiences, including trauma (Frederickson 2001; Frederickson et al. 2000). It's a positive cycle, good feelings today increase the likelihood of good feelings tomorrow."
"Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning, and relationships. Based on science, this is a fundamental reason for being kind to yourself, cultivating wholesome experiences, and taking them in.” – Rick Hanson, Ph.D. (Neuropsychologist, meditation teacher and co-founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom).
Read that last quote again. So, offering kindness to ourselves has far-reaching effects on our bodies, minds and emotions? Yes, indeed! Does it still feel like a selfish practice, or a waste of time? Nope. My hope is that you'll begin regarding self-kindness to be as necessary and beneficial as brushing your teeth, exercising your body or cultivating healthy relationships with others. Like much of what I talk about here, it's a practice. It takes time and repetition, and it becomes easier and more natural the more you do it. Wherever you're at today, I invite you to begin to practice offering yourself kindness as often as possible. Here are some ideas to get you started:
When you catch yourself judging harshly - pause - offer yourself acknowledgment for something you're doing well, or for some part of you that you can appreciate. Let yourself feel the compliment or acknowledgment. Take it in as nourishment.
Make a list of your strengths, as many as you can possibly think of. (Perhaps your creativity, your patience, your consistent efforts to make life sweeter for yourself and those around you, your intelligence, your incredible child-rearing abilities, your discipline, your humor, empathy, composure amidst chaos, etc.) This list should be long, so if it's not at first, keep adding to it as things come to you. Place this list somewhere you can see and contemplate it regularly. Or, carry it with you! When you find yourself creating negative emotional tornadoes of doubt and judgement, pull out your list, read each item slowly, and really own and take in the feelings that recognizing these qualities creates in your body and mind. Bathe in these feelings for at least 2 minutes. On really tough days, do these several times a day.
If you're feeling stuck, try asking a few friends to share with you the qualities they most admire and appreciate about you. Again, write these down, look at them regularly, and let yourself really feel what their compliments create in your mind and body.
There's no wrong way to do this, so experiment! I'll offer the following as a possible seed for your practice:
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
- Walt Whitman, from "Song of the Open Road"
Wishing you greater ease and joy in your hearts and minds, and an ever-expanding capacity for giving and receiving kindness and compassion.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.