Last October, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week was “kindness.” As a concept, this is something I used to struggle with.
By definition, it’s “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”
I can be all of these things to others, especially family and friends. That’s not a problem. But “self-kindness”, you say? Forget it.
Living with social anxiety for over a decade means I’ve perfected the art of self-punishment, whether that be physical or mental. I engage in endless self-criticism, overworking to exhaustion, slamming my fingers in drawers when I make a mistake. Yep, my anxiety and I had self-punishment down to a T.
In 2019, when I was writing my second book, I let things go too far and disregarded even my most basic needs, such as food and rest. The idea of being self-compassionate never occurred to me. Instead, I belittled myself for being “weak”.
“Somebody else would’ve got this done: you’re pathetic,” I thought.
I pushed myself to work harder than ever before and for longer hours.
This approach isn’t uncommon, especially in the workplace. As author Sarah Wilson beautifully puts it:
Anxious behaviour is rewarded in our culture. Being high strung, wound up, frenetic and soooo busy has cachet. I ask someone, “How are you?” and even if they’re kicking back in a caravan park in the outback with a beer watching the sunset, their default response is, “Gosh, so busy, out of control, crazy times.” And they wear it as a badge of honour.
This means that many of us deny we have a problem and keep going and going. Indeed, the more anxious we are, the more we have to convince ourselves we don’t have a problem. This is ironic, or paradoxical. And it seems awfully cruel. (Wilson, 2018, p. 62).
“I wouldn’t be surprised if my head explodes at some point!” I used to joke.
Then, in September of that year, it did. I had a mental breakdown and ended up in A&E during the late hours of a Friday night.
During my recovery, the penny finally dropped. I couldn’t keep treating myself this way if I wanted to remain healthy.
I needed to make some changes. Yet, I had no idea where to start with “self-kindness”. Could I have a bath and light some candles? Surely, there was more to it than that?
Being kind to yourself with anxiety
Even now, I can’t help but feel irked when I come across gifs and posts on social media encouraging me to “be kind” to myself. They’re often written in pastel colours, with a beach in the background. I’m not irritated because I don’t appreciate the message, but rather because I’m perplexed by it. It’s as if the world assumes that self-compassion comes naturally to everyone when the complete opposite is true for me.
In the end, I cracked it by faking it – initially, at least. The results, I found, were still the same. The urge to be kind might not be present, but I could go through the motions. It’s sort of like taking care of a kid you hate… or so I imagine!
Top tips for self-kindness
1) Think of “kindness” as being a separate entity
Self-criticism will always take centre stage initially, especially when we’re tired. However, we can bring compassion into the mix slowly.
In her book, The Kindness Method, life guru Shahroo Izadi refers to the “Couch Analogy”. She encourages readers to imagine their inner critic as a person taking up too much space on a couch, shouting abuse at us.
She then introduces a second character, who’s softly spoken and takes a while to get comfortable. This character is kindness. Eventually, kindness perches on the arm of the same couch and gently challenges what the critic is saying. For example:
Critic: You’re such an idiot!
Kindness: I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree. Look at everything she’s achieved. I think she’s very intelligent.
Initially the critic will win the argument, as kindness isn’t used to being present, but slowly as the conversation continues, kindness will start to infiltrate the mental barriers we have in place. The idea is to build a new habit, rather than replace a bad one. (Izadil, 2018, p.54).
It takes practice and feels strange at first, but it does help. The negative emotions melt away much faster when I use this technique.
2) Make a list of the things a human needs to survive
Even better, think of what a child needs. For example, they need food, water, sleep, cleanliness, affection, exercise and social interaction.
Then literally tick off each point as you go each day. Viewing myself as a caregiver for the Anxious Me keeps me in line. Decent food, for example, isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.
Affection, like cuddles, give me a much-needed oxytocin boost!
3) Feel guilty, then carry on
We all have something that’s a comfort to us. Mine, for instance, is sleep. Sod mindfulness, I want my bed. Rest sorts me out and heals me better than anything.
Sometimes I don’t even need the sleep; I just like lying in bed reading or drinking tea.
Unfortunately, staying in bed is often associated with being “lazy,” and, in some cases, this might be true. Still, as a grown woman, I know what I like and what soothes me.
I don’t want to go for a 10-kilometre run; I want to binge-watch Netflix in bed.
So, that’s what I do once a week.
I still feel the guilt, but like criticism, I let it wash over me. Then I stay put…. and you what? It feels glorious.
Faking it with actions, rather than expecting to feel genuine self-compassion, was a good start. It helped me to form some new, healthy habits.
I can’t stop my brain from being critical, but I can turn the volume down on its negativity with some basic self-care.
First We Make the Beast Beautiful, Wilson, 2018, Harper Collins USA.
The Kindness Method, Izadil, 2018, Bluebird.
NPS-IE-NP-00308 June 2021