How do you treat yourself when nobody else is looking? How do you speak when you’re the only one listening? Do you wake up every day intending to show kindness to yourself, or is your day filled with self-criticism? Do you understand how to be kind to yourself?
You may already understand the importance of self-care – looking after your physical, mental, and emotional health so that you can be the best possible version of yourself.
Exercise, nutrition, relaxation, discipline, and healthy bonds with others are examples of ways to practice self-care. Still, an essential yet often neglected technique is being kind to yourself, also known as self-compassion.
Most of us don’t practice enough self-compassion. Life can harden us, and we might believe that we need to be tough on ourselves and suppress our emotions to get through it. While it’s true that life calls on us to be bold and courageous at times, that doesn’t mean you have to be harsh on yourself. In this article, we’ll explore why you should show more kindness to yourself.
What Does It Mean to Be Kind?
Being kind is doing the right thing for yourself and other people. For instance, if you see someone being mistreated, kindness makes you do things to stop the mistreatment, such as confronting the unkind person or if needed, calling the police to deal with the matter. Being kind also includes being kind to yourself. It means stopping self-pitying and engaging in positive self-talk.
Being kind takes a lot of shapes and forms for different people. You can be kind by being helpful, thoughtful, and caring. You can also display kindness by showing genuine concern for people in need or being charitable. No matter how you show kindness, remember that being kind entails pure intentions; you must not yearn for something in exchange for the kind gestures given to other people. At the same time, you must not feel guilty when prioritizing your well-being by showing kindness to yourself.
Why should you be kind to yourself?
It isn’t always easy to be kind to yourself. We place immense pressure on ourselves to live up to expectations that we wouldn’t expect anyone else to reach all the time.
Why is it easier to allow other people to be their natural selves but so hard to offer that to ourselves? Why do we treat ourselves so differently from the way we often treat others?
When we look at other people, we see them as complete, inherently valid people, even when they make mistakes from time to time. However, when we make mistakes, we tend to be hard on ourselves and may even view ourselves as inadequate or unworthy.
There are several reasons why you should be kind to yourself. First and foremost, self-kindness is good for your health. Equally, harsh criticism and negative self-talk can harm your health. Consider how you speak to yourself and assess whether it’s helping you make a positive change.
Dangers of not being kind to yourself
A study conducted by clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman and colleagues found that if we routinely blame ourselves and ruminate over events, we increase our risk of mental health issues. ‘Psychological processes determine the causal impact of biological, social, and circumstantial risk factors on mental health,’ explains Kinderman.
When we are overly critical of ourselves and inundate our minds with harsh self-talk, we are likely to experience low self-esteem. We might give out to ourselves for not achieving a perfect score on an exam, failing to get that promotion at work, or letting down a partner.
If we continue to reprimand ourselves for our mistakes, we may come to believe that we are not even capable of success. Such thinking is a precursor for low self-esteem, though low self-esteem may also be a causal factor for these thought patterns.
Excessive focus on negative thoughts and self-criticism can impact our level of motivation and make us feel helpless. Studies show that talking to and negatively treating oneself is linked to the onset of depression and may also stem from it.
All of us experience waves of depression every now and again. Sometimes it’s circumstantial, such as after a significant loss or another overwhelming life event. However, if depression persists, we might neglect to nourish essential areas of our lives and suffer to a greater degree as a result.
People who are harsh towards themselves are more likely to experience maladaptive stress than those who are kinder to themselves. The loss of motivation and increase in self-doubt that comes from excessive self-criticism creates the perception that one will not reach their goals, which leads to emotional stress.
Stress is known to be responsible for the onset of many physical and mental health issues. The body is designed to handle stress in short bursts to help us survive a threat to our lives. If we experience it for a prolonged period, as a result, the body and mind suffer.
A prolonged stress response means that stress-related hormones are being released into the body more than necessary. Too much of these chemicals within our system can lead to inflammation, which is sadly one of the leading causes of illness and disease.
If you don’t learn to be kind to yourself, you might rely on others to show you kindness. Some healthy reliance on others for kind words and offers of compassion are normal, but we also need to make sure that we can be there for ourselves when others can’t. This unhealthy reliance is particularly problematic in romantic relationships, often to their detriment.
Benefits of being kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself not only prevents the consequences of not doing so but has some benefits of its own. A 2017 study on the power of self-compassion on our physical health found that ‘people with higher self-compassion tended to perceive lower levels of stress. They also tended to engage in more frequent health-promoting behaviors; both of these pathways were related to better physical health.’
Another study, published in the International Journal of Psychology in 2018, found that ‘being kind to oneself enhances happiness and evaluations of one’s life by increasing self-acceptance and reducing self-blame.’
In the journal Human Development, pioneer of self-compassion research Kristen Neff reports that ‘higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure.’
Reduced stress levels
Harsh self-criticism can elicit a threat response, where our nervous system enters survival mode by releasing a flood of stress-related chemicals such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline.
Our self-criticism might make us believe that our well-being is in jeopardy and that something needs to be done about it, so we respond by getting into ‘fight or flight mode. By offering kindness to yourself in place of harsh self-criticism, you signal to the nervous system that you are safe.
The sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the fight or flight response, can relax because your mind isn’t sending danger signals. Instead, we spend more time inactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with rest and relaxation.
Improved immune system function
Since self-kindness reduces our stress levels, it also improves functioning in the immune system. Persistent stress weakens the immune system, so if we reduce how much stress we place on the body and the mind, we give it a chance to rest and recover.
Improved relationship health
Self-kindness improves your ability to give and accept love and affection in romantic relationships. In The Role of Self-compassion in Romantic Relationships, a study conducted by Kristin Neff and Tasha Beretvas. The researchers explain: ‘Because self-compassionate individuals can to a large extent meet their own needs for comfort, kindness, and belonging, they should be more able to grant their partners more freedom in their relationships without being overly controlling.’
On the other hand, the study reports that their partners said less self-compassionate partners are kind to themselves. Yet, they tend to be more controlling, domineering, and unkind to their significant other.
Neff explains that it becomes easier to own our mistakes and forgive ourselves when we show compassion to ourselves. By offering emotional support to ourselves, we are less reliant on our partners to provide that for us. As such, we have more space to be present with our partners and show them more generosity, care, and affection.
According to Neff, if you have self-compassion, you are better able to own up to your mistakes, forgive yourself and try better next time. Also, by giving yourself emotional support and validation through self-compassion, you aren’t so dependent on your partner to meet all of your needs. You can instead be more giving and generous to your significant other.
Tips on how to be kind to yourself
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff outlines three main components of the self-compassionate approach:
Self-kindness vs. self-judgment
Dr. Neff explains that self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves when we notice ourselves suffering. If we fail at something or feel inadequate about our abilities and capabilities, we offer ourselves kindness instead of criticism and reprimand.
A crucial ingredient in having a self-compassionate relationship with oneself is that you understand and accept that life is not perfect, and it never has to be. The self-compassionate person understands that mistakes and failure are natural and does not beat themselves up for them.
‘Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.’ – Kristin Neff.
The self-compassionate person understands that we can’t always get what we think we need or want since life is not perfect. This is reality and must be accepted; otherwise, one is likely to experience and suffer from unnecessary and harmful stress, frustration, and self-judgment. Bringing compassion and kindness to the reality that nothing and nobody is perfect paves the way for emotional stability.
Common humanity vs. isolation
When things don’t go exactly the way we wanted them to, we might get frustrated. It’s easy to think that our mistakes, failures, and shortcomings are exclusive to ourselves.
We sometimes get so caught up in pressure and self-importance that we forget that others are suffering too. We forget that everybody makes mistakes, and most if not all of us criticize ourselves for those mistakes.
According to Neff, ‘self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.’
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
Mindfulness is a simple yet powerful tool we can apply to our lives to help us overcome our harsh self-criticism. Mindfulness can be practiced and developed to help you enter a ‘non-judgmental, receptive state of mind in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.‘
A core aspect of mindfulness is that one does not ‘over-identify with the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise. It is simply about allowing and observing, but not attaching, as a means of staying present and grounded in our lives rather than losing ourselves into negative reactivity.
Exercises on self-compassion
Be your own friend
How would you speak to a friend going through what you’re going through now? Would you give out to them, judge them, and call them out on their past mistakes? Probably not. Kristin Neff offers a practical exercise on self-compassion, simply considering how you talk to yourself and check if you would also talk to a friend that way.
Write down something that is on your mind or troubling you that you would typically meet with criticism or negative self-talk. Acknowledge all of the emotions that come up, especially those that you’re struggling to deal with.
Next, write down how you would respond as a compassionate friend if a friend had come to you with that problem. Create a dialogue, which can be anywhere in length from a few lines to a few pages.
Cultivate self-compassion through writing
If you have an issue in your life that makes you feel inadequate, such as being unhappy with your body, a relationship issue, or struggles at work, take some time to write about it.
Ensure to check in with the emotions and beliefs that come up when you bring attention to those feelings of inadequacy. Take the time to write them down.
Next, write a letter to yourself – the person who wrote down those feelings of inadequacy, as though you, the letter writer, were a compassionate, unconditionally loving friend.
This friend knows all your strengths and weaknesses and loves you for every aspect of yourself. Write as this friend, explaining to you the compassionate, loving, and unconditionally positive perspective they have about you.
Use supportive touch
When we’re stressed out because our inner critic is relentless with harsh self-talk, our nervous system gets frazzled. As babies, our caregivers soothe us by rocking us and connecting to our nervous system through gentle physical touch.
These are known as soothing mechanisms, and we use them in our adult lives, too. Running, dancing, and stretching are all soothing mechanical methods we use to help ourselves overcome stress.
Kristin Neff recommends using supportive touch to help us connect with our compassionate selves and shift the nervous system toward relaxation and calm. If you’ve never offered yourself supportive touch before, it might feel a little silly or embarrassing at first.
The sooner you can let go of that resistance, the better. Research proves that gentle touch, even self-directed touch, elicits the release of oxytocin in the brain, the chemical responsible for bonding and the sense of belonging.
As seen on Neff’s website, try the following ‘hand-on-heart exercise to get started with supportive touch.
- Pause, and take two to three deep breaths into your diaphragms (exhale in between each breath)
- Place your hand over your heart. Bring your attention to the gentleness of your touch and the warmth of your hand.
- Notice the natural rise and fall of your chest in alignment with your breath.
- Indulge in the feeling for as long you like.
Set kind intentions
When you wake up in the morning, take a second to pause and reflect on your intentions for the day. If you always wake up in a hurry to get to work or school, try to wake up even just fifteen minutes earlier to give yourself some space to reflect.
Write down at least three intentions for the day that will help you be more kind to yourself. For example, a choice might be to do thirty minutes of exercise. Another might be to cook a healthy, nutritious dinner for yourself or some friends that evening.
A third might be to go to bed early that night and get enough quality rest to wake up early again the following morning and set more kind intentions.
Be Kind Always
The first person who should always be kind to you is you. Being kind to yourself isn’t always easy and it is something that many of us struggle with. Especially when we try to live up to society and other people’s standards. However, if you practice it, you will get used to what expressing kindness to yourself looks like. Being always kind to yourself and other people benefits your mental and emotional health. The kindness you show and receive from others will ultimately give you lifelong fulfillment as it generates an increased sense of self-worth and lets you undertake selfless acts to help others.
Spread this way of living and make it your life’s mantra: Be kind always.
The Bottom Line
Understand that cultivating self-compassion is a process. It takes practice to let go of pain, give up control, and free yourself from negative thinking. In the process of cultivating self-compassion, you will notice a lot more self-kindness and compassion for others.
Anytime you feel stressed or overwhelmed with harsh self-criticism, come back to this article, listen to your favorite mindfulness meditation, pray, or pause, take a moment to breathe, and let go.