Self-kindness

Is treating ourselves well, being kind to ourselves, as if we are important and that we like and respect ourselves. It involves feelings of friendliness towards ourselves.

We all have this capacity to be kind, it’s built into our DNA; our hearts and minds.

Yet, there is a curious phenomenon that we can treat our friends and loved ones in a friendly and kind way, especially when they’re having a hard time. But we often don’t extend these heart-felt sentiments to ourselves, and can be more unkind to ourselves than we are with people we don’t actually like. We can give our friends a hug, ask our loved ones what they need right now to help. But we tend to beat ourselves up, criticize ourselves in unpleasant ways.

This is reinforced by our culture; the rule that it’s OK to be kind to others but not to ourselves.

The practice of self-kindness offers a way of learning to be kind to ourselves consistently. We experience opportunities to be supportive and caring towards ourselves, especially in times of struggle.

With self-kindness practices, we can reassure ourselves that we are OK and doing the best we can right now.

So, rather than attacking and putting ourselves down for being inadequate, we give ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance. Self-kindness activities also teach us to soothe and comfort ourselves.

“You yourself, as much as anyone in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

Kindness, as a practice, first appeared in the West when Buddhist teachers, especially Sharon Salzberg,  brought the practice of loving kindness from the east to the west in the 1970’s.

Loving kindness meditation involves generating kind intentions to ourselves, loved ones, friends, people we don’t know well, and those that cause us difficulties.

Loving kindness intentions can be in the form of phrases, visualizations &/or feelings. During the practice, we first direct our kind focus to ourselves and repeat certain phrases, for instance:

  • May I be calm.

  • May I be kind to myself.
  • May I be healthy.
  • May I be happy.
  • May I know I matter and than I’m lovable.
  • May I be safe.

If the phrases don’t resonate particularly well, visualizations or feelings can be used instead, where we generate feelings or images of safety, ease, happiness or well-being.

We then direct our kind attention, in the same ways, to those close to us and those who are distant. Finally, we focus with loving-kindness on difficult individuals in our life.

In more recent times, there has been a resurgence of interest in loving kindness practices.

This is due, in part, to the dedication and associated research, of Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer who have developed a self-compassion program. This is called Mindful Self-Compassion.

“Self-compassion has the same qualities as compassion for others. “ it involves the clear seeing of our own suffering, a caring response to our suffering that includes the desire to help, and recognition that suffering is part of the shared human condition “ -K.Neff

Major components of this mindful self-compassion program are kindness and mindfulness. The other is common humanity; the declaration that difficulties in life are to the nature of being human, and not about any personal inadequacies.

This combination of mindfulness, kindness and common humanity provide an effective way of dispelling the self- judgement and derogatory internal chatter that most of us have. We develop a friendly relationship with ourselves, and all that this entails.

With the power of mindfulness, we recognize the extent to which we hurt ourselves through all of that self-criticism. There’s a greater understanding of ourselves. We can acknowledge that our weaknesses and failures are part of the human condition, and require understanding and healing rather than self-condemnation. We become motivated to help ourselves, in all the ways we can.

“When we practice loving, kindness and compassion, we are the first ones to profit.” – Rumi

Over the years, many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of both practices: loving kindness and mindful self-compassion. They have been found to be most helpful for mental heath issues like anxiety, as well as medical concerns like chronic pain.

More specific benefits include:

  • more self confidence and capacity to bounce back after disappointment and failure
  • taking more personal responsibility for mistakes
  • engaging more readily in healthy lifestyle choices
  • developing resilience to cope with challenging life situations
  • experiencing more caring, loving personal relationships.

In particular, mindful self-compassion research has shown:

  • resolution of depression, anxiety, shame and increased rates of happiness and life satisfaction.
  • improvements in issues that arise from striving for self esteem, e.g., social comparison and emotional instability.
  • healthier body image
  • enhanced physical health and immunity, due to reduced sympathetic nervous system (stress reaction) arousal; coupled with increased parasympathetic (rest&digest reaction) arousal.

Some people have concerns about the practices loving kindness and self-compassion, when they first learn about them.

There’s a belief that they can cause self-pity; feeling sorry for ourselves. Also, that they can lead to a sense of weakness and vulnerability.

The opposite is actually true as in being kind to ourselves, we develop the new belief that we can cope with difficult stuff, and that we are OK just as we are. An inner strength develops via the cultivation of resilience.

Another reservation is that we can become self-centred and selfish using these practices. Actually, we develop greater kindness and compassion for others.

We don’t become apathetic, as some people fear.

We develop more motivation to achieve our goals, including looking after ourselves through healthy eating, exercise, other healthy lifestyle choices. This is due to a renewed energy for long-term well-being, rather than our habitual cravings for short-term delights.

Likewise, we can let go of another doubt, that is, developing kindness and compassion for ourselves undermines our capacities to succeed; the only way to succeed is with self-criticism. However, this is a poor motivator of behavior as it undermines our self-confidence.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” -Marianne Williamson

Rather than using harsh words to get us to work towards achieving our goals, we encourage ourselves to achieve well for the simple fact that loving kindness and self-compassion practices develop personal responsibility, and equally importantly, a sense of respect and caring for ourselves.

Valuing ourselves means we become less fearful of failure, and leads to heightened motivation to reach our full potential.

“I’ve finally stopped running away from myself. Who else is there better to be?” –Goldie Hawn