Be kind to yourself: seven steps to self-care
There’s a lot to be said for being kind from a wellbeing perspective: it’s actually been suggested that kindness could help you live longer, having a beneficial impact on both the immune system and blood pressure.
Yet although we may find it easy to be kind to others, are we actually kind to ourselves?
Consultant trainer Penny Aspinall examines the importance of self-compassion in this helpful video, and steps that all of us can take to care for ourselves as well as others. The video was recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Penny’s advice is just as relevant today. So brew yourself a cuppa, settle in and let’s explore this together; if you haven’t got time to watch it all right now, you can jump straight ahead to the key parts that interest you most using the time references below.
Please note: Although this video was recorded in 2020 and refers to the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of self compassion and the advice given is applicable just as much now as it was then.
Understanding self-compassion (1:00)
Self-compassion is certainly not self-pity; in fact, it’s really no different from having compassion for other people. Consider the difference between feeling sorry for somebody and being kind to them: when you adopt a compassionate mindset towards yourself, you move from “oh, poor me” to thinking “OK, I’m in a tough place, but what can I do about it? How can I help myself through it?”
Self-compassion is important because when we’re struggling or suffering in some way, we’re already feeling bad enough about ourselves anyway. Our brain chemistry produces hormones that make us feel worse, and if we kick ourselves while we’re down, we only exacerbate the problem and increase these negative feelings.
Conversely, by being kind and taking steps to provide comfort and soothe ourselves, we affect our brain chemistry in a positive way. This enables us to calm our systems down, become more positive, and in the process build resilience and the ability to deal with difficult situations when they arise. Self-compassion is a vital tool that can help us with many aspects of life.
Pay attention to how you treat yourself (2:38)
A very useful starting point on the road to self-compassion is taking time to pause and begin actively paying attention to how you treat yourself and how you behave with yourself. Ask the following:
- Are you self-critical a lot of the time? Do you tell yourself off and feel that you are not meeting the high standard that you set for yourself? Do you focus on the one thing you may have done wrong - and not the 99 things you may have done right?
- Do you often have a go at yourself? Many of us chastise ourselves with negative self-talk, beating ourselves up when we feel we’ve not reached our own lofty high standards.
- Do you sometimes put others’ needs above your own? While it’s important to look out for others’ needs, you can’t pour from an empty cup and need to strike a healthy balance.
If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to the questions above, you’re certainly not alone. The chances are that you will resonate with at least one of these statements; most of us, at some point, can be quite hard on ourselves.
Are you being fair to yourself? (3:51)
Taking time to pause and reflect can allow you to then ask: is it fair that I am being this hard on myself? What have I done to deserve this, and why am I doing this?
Self-critique and negativity is very common, yet most of us wouldn’t behave in this way to other people: we wouldn’t choose to talk to others in the same way that we speak to ourselves. It’s important to consider this: if there was somebody who you really valued and loved, and whose relationship you appreciated, would you intentionally choose to make them feel bad about themselves? The likely answer is no.
It’s also worth reflecting on whether you prioritise other people’s needs above your own, and think carefully about whether you treat yourself as well as you treat others. There’s a fine balance to be struck here.
Challenge negative thinking (4:48)
One of the first steps we can take towards countering critical or negative language is to catch ourselves when we are in these patterns - and try and replace these words with gentle and accepting phrases that lift us up, rather than knock us down.
This is not as easy as it sounds: when we behave in a certain way for so long, it can almost become a natural reflex. It takes time and intent to stop, pause and actively think: “did I just say that to myself? Why?”
Be conscious of your personal language and try to treat yourself in an encouraging and comforting manner, like you would a close friend or somebody you really cared about. Actively seek to challenge and change that negative, punitive, critical self-talk when it arises.
It’s OK to not feel OK (5:45)
Don’t ignore suffering: it’s part of life. Sometimes it’s worth acknowledging that things didn’t go to plan and that you wish things had happened differently. After doing so, you can then reassure yourself and recognise that it’s not the end of the world; everybody makes mistakes sometimes.
We cannot avoid suffering completely in life - especially during this current time of global uncertainty. It can be helpful to acknowledge the situation you find yourself in, but to then think about how you can go beyond that, even if all you can do right now is provide yourself with a moment of calm.
Touch can play a key role here - its importance has really been underscored in 2020 with social distancing measures leading to skin hunger. When we are feeling really unhappy, being touched can make a big difference: it’s a natural human instinct to alleviate distress, and human touch actually does increase our endorphins. Touch is another proven way of making us feel calmer, soothed and reassured. So if you want to acknowledge a challenging situation or negative feelings, sometimes a simple action of touch, such as putting your hand on your heart, can help settle heightened feelings of stress, anxiety, misery or fear.
Rest, relax and disconnect from work (8:17)
Disconnecting from work may sound easy, but a lot of us don’t do it very well, especially during times like now when the lines between work and home life have been blurred. As our kitchens, spare rooms and even bedrooms double as workplaces, Forbes reports that more than two-thirds of employees are currently experiencing burnout.
It’s essential for our mental wellbeing to have regular breaks; it also makes us more productive. Letting your mind wander and harnessing the power of daydreaming when you are struggling with a problem can actually help bring what you need to the surface. Regular breaks are good for both our physical and mental health.
Right now, times are challenging and work patterns are not how they used to be for many of us. Yet if you are working really hard, now or in the future, don’t forget that breaks pay good dividends. They’re not a luxury.
Maintain boundaries between work and home time so they don’t all merge into one; all of us need to allow ourselves that all-important downtime.
If you're feeling too busy to take a break, that’s probably a sure sign that you need one. So really notice when you neglect to do so. Accidents and mistakes happen when we don’t stop at the right time for us: we need to learn to take notice of when we have got caught up in that place, rather than look back with hindsight.
It’s also hugely important not to work when you’re unwell, either physically or mentally. This can be easier said than done, but there’s a lot of evidence showing that presenteeism is not good for us or the organisations that we work for. It’s much better to accept you’re not feeling 100% and take some time to get better - and that’s another way to be kind to yourself.
Sleep matters (11:02)
Sleep is often a casualty when we are stressed, anxious or depressed - yet a lack of sleep can actually increase anxiety and so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Sleep is the ultimate rest; we need our 7-8 hours a night to help our brains and immune systems to recharge and develop; this is especially important for young people. All of us know the importance of sleep in our hearts - we always feel dreadful when we haven’t had a good night’s sleep.
If we are not sleeping because of bad habits, such as going to bed too late when we have to get up early, try and think about that and take proactive, mindful steps to get your eight hours a night or more if you’re younger.
Having trouble sleeping? (12:41)
Respect your circadian rhythms. These are hard-wired into us, telling us when we should be asleep and awake. Human beings are designed to be awake during the day when it’s light and asleep at night when it’s dark: this is what our bodies are meant to do.
Yet with our 24/7 society where we can be switched on and ‘connected’ all the time, it can sometimes feel much harder to keep to those natural rhythms. Before electricity and the Industrial Revolution it was a lot easier to control; in today’s society, we could be doing many of the same activities 24 hours a day, so we really have to be intentional with respecting and working to our circadian rhythms.
All of us have slightly different patterns and require varying levels of sleep; some people naturally like to go to bed later and get up a bit later, while others like to be up with the larks and embrace the day. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, try and make sure to get your eight hours’ sleep within roughly the hours when it’s dark.
If you’re having difficulty sleeping, see if you can readjust these rhythms. Exposure to lots of natural sunlight or bright lights during the day can help us become more alert - which is of course easier in the summer. During the darker winter months, make sure you have some bright lights on when you should be awake. Conversely, take steps to reduce light levels in the evening, and limit bright light exposure from electronic devices and screens for at least an hour before you got sleep. These artificial lights affect your brain, creating extra stimulus and making it harder for you to switch off and get the rest that your body deserves and needs. More relaxing alternatives such as reading a book, listening to a podcast or calming music before bed can help to create the environment that your body needs to wind down. Put your devices into sleep mode, turn off notifications and, perhaps, consider putting your phone into a different room entirely, replacing it with a traditional alarm clock.
Another tip is to avoid checking the time if you wake up in the middle of the night: doing so makes it harder to re-settle and increases anxiety levels. Russell Foster’s excellent ‘Why do we sleep?’ talk explores the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms - it’s recommended viewing.
Moving forward (16:39)
There are lots of ways to be kind to yourself; take a few moments to think about what you’re going to do to start making a positive change, today.
If you want to explore the concept of self-compassion further, visit www.self-compassion.org. Dr. Kirsten Neff has gathered together a host of valuable information, resources and practices which you can do if you’re experiencing a difficult time, as well as mindfulness exercises. The website also includes a questionnaire that you can take to see how self-compassionate you are.
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