From an early age, we’re taught to be kind. Teachers remind us to have compassion for others, and one of the most memorable quotes for me growing up was the bible verse “to love your neighbour as yourself”.
As I grew older, I realised one of my biggest barriers in being kind wasn’t about loving others – it was being unable to personally accept love and kindness in my life. For various reasons, like experiencing bullying, trauma, abuse, to everyday insecurities and stress, we may struggle to be self-compassionate. But before we can love others, we need to practice it for ourselves – you can’t give what you don’t have.
What do ‘self-compassion’ and ‘self-kindness’ mean anyway?
Psychology Today describes it as providing “patience”, “acceptance” and “care” for yourself. Rather than criticising yourself, self-kindness involves “being tolerant of our flaws and inadequacies”. We have to develop coping mechanisms to be able to support ourselves whenever we feel hurt, upset, or inadequate. Kristen Neff, a researcher, author and TED talk speaker on the topic of self-compassion, stated that self-kindness “involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would a dear friend in need”.
Self-compassion is a broader term, commonly thought to encompass not only self-kindness, but also the recognition that suffering and personal failure are merely part of a wider human experience that we all share. Self-compassion also involves being mindful that we are taking a balanced, neutral approach to our emotions – neither ignoring them nor ruminating on them.
Benefits of being self-compassionate
Studies have linked self-compassion to increased productivity and performance after failure, partly because it enables us to maintain a calm and peaceful mindset in the face of rejection and criticism, rather than the feelings of despair we may find ourselves stuck in if we rely solely on self-criticism. Rather than pushing ourselves to constantly improve and strive for better, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University has proven that adopting a negative and self-critical mindset can be detrimental to our general wellbeing, and make us less likely to grow or learn from our experiences.
There are physiological benefits to self-compassion too. Whilst harsh words (such as “I’m not good enough” or “I did terribly today”) can activate our sympathetic nervous system and elevate our cortisol (stress hormone) levels, self-compassion deactivates our neurological threat system (which is associated with insecurity, arousal, and defensiveness). It also activates the self-soothing system (associated with the oxytocin-opiate system and feelings of attachment and security) creating a sense of being nurtured and cared for.
If there are all these benefits…why aren’t we more compassionate to ourselves?
Instead of being kind and understanding, our inner voice can sometimes be mean and judgemental instead, fueling us with doubt and anxiety. Sometimes this self-criticism comes from a place of insecurity; such as a fear of becoming uncompetitive and complacent, or fall behind if we refuse to stop striving. Other times, we might fear that we’d be seen as arrogant or self-centred if we showed ourselves kindness. Personally, I’ve realised that a big reason why I find it so difficult to be self-compassionate is because I feel anxious that the kindness I’m trying to show myself isn’t justified or warranted. Sometimes I feel like I’m making up reasons to be kind to myself, and it feels wrong, especially having grown up in a school system where I relied a lot on teachers’ comments and feedback to improve. I didn’t want others to think I was making up excuses for my mistakes! But over time I’ve learned that kindness isn’t something you have to earn. It’s not like you have to do well in a test to deserve it – you should be able to practice compassion unconditionally.
Due to cultural or societal factors, we may be made to feel that listening to our own emotions first is indulgent and weak, but in fact it is a source of resilience, allowing us to bounce back from setbacks and maintain a healthy outlook. Sometimes we may emphasise competitiveness, perfection, and achievement above looking after our emotions. Yet this often comes at the expense of being mindful of the present and enjoying the process itself.
How can I be kinder to myself?
There are lots of ways to be kind to ourselves that can be built into our daily routine. First and foremost, we should look after our physical needs – making sure we get enough rest, nutrition, water, and social interaction, for example.
Self-kindness will look different for everyone, but here are some ideas:
- Be patient with yourself. That in itself is a form of kindness! You might not get it right every time, and you might not always feel the benefits straight away, but it doesn’t mean it’s not working. Forgive yourself – remember, it’s usually healthier to let go.
- You can also jot down the self-talk you give yourself after a bad day, and try to reflect on it to see whether this is how you would talk to a friend or loved one. It can be hard to identify negative thinking when it just comes and goes passively in your head, but being mindful of them on paper can really make you aware of just how detrimental and hurtful those thoughts might be. Or, if you’re feeling rather good at the moment, you can take some time to write yourself a letter of affirmation and encouragement for when you go through some rough times. Reading it when you are struggling can remind you that things can get better, and that any feelings you feel are just temporary.
- As someone who enjoys words and writing, I like to scroll on Instagram accounts that promote positive mental health. I bookmark uplifting quotes and posts that bring a smile to my face, so that I have a collection of fun, happy things to look at when I need a little boost during the day. I have compiled some of my favourite quotes into a short, easy-to-remember mantra that I can repeat to myself whenever I need a reminder. However, be aware that social media can bring challenges of its own – for example, just searching #mentalhealth may bring up triggering or unhelpful posts, so make sure you are aware of online safely first!
- Finally, we can also activate our senses – smelling a scented candle or body lotion, listening to relaxing music (Spotify has some great calming playlists!), getting a massage, or even just giving our eyes a break from digital screens and taking some time to step outside and admire Hong Kong’s hilly trails and waterfront.
Take some time to discover what works best for you. Understand that building self-care and self-kindness into your routine will take time. As Birgit Ohlin wrote on the Positive Psychology blog, “accept yourself. You are not perfect. And yes, you likely could have done better. But chances are, you did just fine. And often, that’s more than enough.”
References & Further Support:
- 40 Ways to Practice Self-Kindness, Huffington Post
- Neff, Kristin and Dahm, Katie. “Self Compassion: What is is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness”, University of Texas at Austin. https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Mindfulness_and_SC_chapter_in_press.pdf
- The Many Benefits of Self-Compassion, Psychology Today
- The Power of Self Compassion, Harvard Medical School
- The Scientific Benefits of Self-Compassion, Stanford University
- Ohlin, Birgit. 5 Steps to Develop Self-Compassion & Overcome Your Inner Critic, Positive Psychology Blog. https://positivepsychology.com/self-compassion-5-steps/
- The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion: Kristin Neff at TEDxCentennialParkWomen
- Using the Practice of Self-Kindness to Cope With Stress, Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201806/using-the-practice-self-kindness-cope-stress
Editor’s note: Always setting high standards and expecting too much from ourselves are not healthy ways to strive for excellence. Click here to learn more!