There’s plenty that can be said about the importance and the benefit of being kind to people. I’ve certainly said plenty.
But let’s also remember to be kind to ourselves.
Many of us find this difficult and, in the spirit of honesty, I do too. Some of the difficulty originates from the idea that being kind to yourself is selfish, the notion that it means to put yourself first; be kind to yourself instead of others or, at the very least, before you help others.
But the thing is, being kind to yourself doesn’t imply any order at all – whether before, after, or even instead of. It just means to be kind to yourself … as well as others.
Sometimes, yes, it does need to be before, like the popular analogy of first putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you help someone else with theirs, sometimes it’s at the same time, but other times it can wait. It depends!
There’s no fixed rule. It depends on how you feel, it depends on your needs, and it depends on what’s going on in your life.
Sometimes, it needs to be now. Right now. Before you do anything else. You need to take a breath and have a time out.
But other times, there’s a promise that, ‘once I’m done here, I’m having a nice hot bath (or reading my book / taking a walk / watching a movie, etc)’.
Then there are times when saying ‘No’ is what self-kindness has to be. And if that feels too harsh, then a softer, ‘Maybe later’, ‘Perhaps some other time’, or even, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to’, can work, without need for further explanation.
Sometimes an act of self-kindness can be to treat yourself in some way; perhaps with a purchase of some sort – something new to wear, a trip, or even an indulgent experience. Sometimes, simply giving yourself the gift of time can be self-kindness.
I found that blocking out some time in my diary with the words, ‘Meeting with Self’ works a treat. I’ve noticed that no matter how much I have going on, I will always find time for loved ones or friends if they need me. Often, I’ll shuffle things around a bit and make a space in my diary if a date and time is required.
Realising that I also needed to support my own mental health lest I wear myself out, I started blocking time in my diary for myself when I felt I needed it and giving the ‘meeting’ as much importance as making the time for someone else.
I might read a book, meditate, play some tennis. I might even watch an episode of Star Trek. Well, we all have the things that make us smile.
The first time I did this, my old beliefs came up. Am I being selfish? Am I being self-indulgent? There are surely better ways I can spend a few hours than this … the office needs tidying, the dishwasher needs emptying, my parents need that outdoor tap fixed, etc.
Sure, helping others can be immensely satisfying and can lend a sense of purpose. It also satisfies that deep part of us that knows that kindness is almost always the right thing to do. Helping others no matter what we have going on can feel expansive and it can also seem to create time.
Once, when I had a tight deadline to make, a family member needed my assistance. I dropped what I was doing and went to help. When I returned home, I felt elevated, partly from the sense of connection and the palpable sense of gratitude I’d received, and also from the sense of satisfaction that I did the right thing. When I went back to making my deadline, I wrote better than I’d ever done before. The higher quality of my work meant I barely even needed to edit. I easily made my deadline.
So it depends. There’s no fixed rule. You need to use your own judgement.
Self-kindness is sometimes a necessity and has to come first, and sometimes those things that need done are not as immediate as they first seem. Sometimes, you need to take a breath first. Feeling refreshed, you’ll be able to give more of yourself to others and to what needs done.
You’ll be more present, more alert, have more energy, you’ll even be more insightful if a problem needs solving. Despite the inner urgent tug of, ‘I must do it now’, sometimes … and not always … it depends … some things can wait, at least for a bit, while you first do what you need to do to support your mental health.
Especially if you’re feeling tired, worn out, over stretched.
There’s plenty research showing that kindness makes us happier, but there’s other research that adds, ‘… only to a point’. And that point is different depending on the circumstances of our lives.
Some research indicates a tipping point where we’re giving too much of ourselves too often or where we’re feeling taken for granted. Then what might have started out as kindness once upon a time now begins to feel like a strain.
It is before these tipping points – well before, in fact – that we need a self-kindness intervention, lest it does become too late.
And then there’s the type of self-kindness that’s about how we think of ourselves and how we speak to ourselves about ourselves.
Who hasn’t declared, “I’m such a ______ [insert choice word or phrase].”? It’s OK and normal once in a while, but not so much when it’s all the time.
Self-kindness comes in learning to be gentle with ourselves not only in the things that we do for ourselves, but in how we treat ourselves in our minds.
Practice being mindful of the times when your thinking of yourself is worse than it is for others. Then practice kindness to yourself, even if it feels strange at first. Try a few gentle words on for size, as if you were speaking to a loved one or friend. Practice. I use the word ‘practice’ intentionally here. For most of us, it really does take practice.
But just like learning any skill takes practice, you don’t have to be a self-kindness expert at the first attempt. Allow yourself the time and space to learn to get better at thinking and speaking kindly of yourself.
You deserve it.
A simple practice is the Buddhists’ Loving Kindness meditation (metta). “May I be happy, and well, and safe, and may I feel at ease.”
Repeat it three times, softly and gently, and then direct the sentiment three times to some other people – loved ones, friends, colleagues, even people you find challenging. Always starting the practice with yourself, in time you learn to always include yourself in kind thoughts, words, and actions.
So let’s start now, before you go on with the rest of your day. Repeat softly and gently to yourself:
“May I be happy, and well, and safe, and may I feel at ease.”
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.