By Tyler Clemmons, LCSW
Something that has been on my mind lately is self-kindness: the concept of being kind to ourselves. It seems to be a daily occurrence that we see and experience people being unkind to each other. Oftentimes, our thoughts and the messages we tell ourselves are also unkind. Maybe we doubt our self-worth, point out our flaws, focus on our mistakes, or discount positive things in our lives. When we repeat those unkind messages over and over again, they tend to feel ingrained.
I am reminded of a quote from the book “Aware” by Dan Siegel: “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” In other words, when we repeatedly focus on something, such as a negative thought about ourselves, it can become a pattern. If we make a mistake and are unkind to ourselves, it is easier to be unkind to ourselves the next time a mistake happens. Fortunately, this can work both ways. When we reframe our thoughts and are kind to ourselves, we can develop patterns of kindness. I looked up a definition of kindness, which reads “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” I decided to take some time to focus on these words: friendly, generous, and considerate regarding how we treat ourselves.
First, I want to focus on friendliness. I want you to take a minute and think about what you picture when you hear the word “friendly.” I think about when we are in the early stages of a relationship with someone, or being around someone who we are not familiar with. We are kind to them and usually do not show any judgment toward them. We want to get to know them, or at least create a warm environment so they feel comfortable around us or comfortable in the situation that they are in. We use nonverbal communication, like smiling and active listening, to show that we are open to being around them.
A friendly person is someone pleasant to be around. Friendly people tend to build us up, point out our strengths, and welcome us in without judgment. I like to be around the person I am describing. I find that I like myself more and am more kind to myself when I am around people like this. I appreciate the unspoken messages friendly people send to me: “I am not judging you. I like being around you. Your mistakes are okay, and I want you to feel comfortable to be yourself.”
We often find it easy to treat our friends like this, but at times, it is hard to treat ourselves like this. We are often harsher toward ourselves than we are toward others. Sometimes when we make a mistake or feel that we have not met our expectations, we send ourselves unfriendly messages like: “I am judging you. Mistakes are not okay. I do not like being around you. You need to be different.”
Some of these situations might sound familiar:
You get a call at the end of the week from your child’s teacher, letting you know that your child has not been in virtual school for the past two days when you thought that they were? You become judgmental toward yourself and begin to list the reasons that you are a bad parent. You even assume that the teacher is judging you as well. Would you tell your friend that they were a bad parent if they were in this situation? Probably not! What if instead, you remind yourself of all the responsibilities on your plate, and commend yourself for getting through the week, while giving yourself grace for not noticing your child missed school. It could be a great time to thank their teacher for helping to get back on track during stressful times, and to remind yourself that you are probably not the only parent to get that call this week.
You are working on a car or house project this week, and you realize that you’ve made a mistake that’s going to take a lot of time or money to fix. Suddenly the messages about failure and frustration with yourself start to fly into your head. What would you say to a friend in this situation? Maybe affirm yourself: “It took courage and determination to try that project” or “Mistakes are okay, and they help me grow.”
You are trying to decide whether to reach out to a friend to spend time together. An unfriendly message you’ve told yourself is something like, “They don’t want to be around me, I have nothing to offer them.” What if your friend told you they have these doubts about themselves? You would make sure to remind them why you enjoy being with them. This week, try to remind yourself of the strengths that you bring to a friendship.
You are scrolling through your social media feeds this week, your negative thoughts center around believing you should look like someone else, have the things someone else has, or go the places someone else goes. What if this week, you remind yourself that you don’t have to look the way they look, have the things they have, or do the things they do. “I am comfortable with myself and the way I live my life.”
I encourage you to take time this week to focus on developing a pattern of friendliness toward yourself. Maybe you take some time to tell yourself a few things that you value about yourself. You could remind yourself of something about your appearance, your personality, or something others like about you. Take some time this week to be warm toward yourself.
“Build yourself up, point out your strengths, and give yourself grace when you mess up.”
When you notice that you are being unkind toward yourself, step back and think, “What would I say to my friend if they were in this situation?” or “What do I want to hear from my friend right now?” If you ask those questions, you are more likely to send yourself the message, “I am not judging you. I like being around you. It’s okay to make mistakes. Be comfortable with who you are.”