A guide to self kindness and compassion

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘kindness’ and to mark this we wanted to share our advice on how to be kinder to yourself.

Being kind to yourself is good for you

Self-kindness is important for our wellbeing. We spend more time with ourselves than anyone else and how we relate to ourselves has a huge impact on how we feel.

Research tells us that self-compassion plays a vital role in our mental wellbeing and can act as a powerful antidote to many mental health difficulties.

It’s proven that being kinder to ourselves can also improve our emotional wellbeing in key areas. Our bodies benefit from giving and receiving kindness with beneficial impacts on human physiology, including the immune and cardiovascular systems, neurophysiological pathways and even epigenetic profiles.

It’s kind of hard sometimes

Despite this, the seemingly simple idea of being kind to yourself can be a difficult concept for some. Many people find it much easier to be compassionate to others than to themselves.

Some people confuse kindness with weakness or they worry that being self-compassionate means an attitude where ‘anything goes’, resulting in lowered self-expectations, standards or achievements.

Some further common myths about being kind to oneself include:

  • Being self-compassionate means I will become lazy and won’t achieve what I want in life
  • Looking after myself is selfish
  • Being kind to myself makes me ‘soft’ or self-indulgent
  • Other people are more important than me and need to be my priority
  • I don’t deserve kindness
  • I need to make sure I don’t make any mistakes and being self-compassionate will let me off the hook too easily
  • If things get too easy for me I’m asking for trouble.

These ideas, whilst understandable, misinterpret the real idea of self-compassion.

Self-compassion involves treating oneself kindly, acknowledging that as humans ‘we are all in the same boat’ and that everybody hurts sometimes. It also means we are motivated to balance our negative thoughts and emotions by acting to relieve our distress.

This isn’t however a ‘free pass’ to act however we like. On the contrary, true self-compassion involves being honest with ourselves and fully accountable for our actions.

The difference is that this is done with an understanding of what it really means to be human and the knowledge that no one is perfect.

Self-correction rather than self-criticism

This does not mean that we are complacent. We can still strive to achieve our goals. Self-compassion recognises life is hard and that being understanding, kind and supportive to ourselves can help us do this in a way that is much more helpful than by being self-critical and beating ourselves up.

Imagine for a moment how it would feel to spend a day with a truly negative person who is constantly pointing out all of your faults and drawing your attention to everything you have done wrong, no matter how minor.

Imagine this person gives you a really hard time, calls you names and is never satisfied with anything you do, no matter how hard you work. How might you feel at the end of day? Or even a week with that person?

Chances are you may feel disheartened and lacking in confidence, and that somehow you are ‘not quite good enough’. You may (wisely) think twice before choosing to spend too much time with this overly critical person recognising them as a negative influence on your emotional wellbeing. However, many of us, without always realising it, regularly relate to ourselves in this way.

You don’t have to be cruel to be kind

Being hard on yourself does not work and it is likely to cause more harm than good.

Researchers at Stamford University found that self-criticism is actually far more destructive than it is helpful. In one study that followed hundreds of people trying to meet a wide range of goals (e.g. losing weight, pursuing academic studies, improving social relationships or their work performance) results revealed that the more people criticised themselves, the slower their progress over time was and the less likely they were to achieve the goal they had set.

Neuroscientists suggest that this is because self-criticism shifts the brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment that actually causes us to disengage from our goals.

Being cruel to ourselves is not motivating. It actually leaves us feeling threatened and demoralised, and rather than calling us to action it leaves us stuck in a cycle of rumination, procrastination and self-loathing.

Compassionate self-correction and self-talk, on the other hand, boost happiness and are effective means of enhancing our motivation, performance and resilience.

How to cultivate self-kindness

Compassion is multi-directional. Many people find it easier to be compassionate to others to begin with. This can be a good starting point but over time we need to also practice receiving compassion from others as well as being compassionate to ourselves.

It can be helpful to imagine how a kindness coach might help us approach the complexities and difficulties that life throws at us.

A kindness coach is a wise and trusted ally, someone who is truly on our side - rooting for us no matter what. They care for us deeply and unconditionally, knowing that we are not perfect. They understand all of the events in our lives that have brought us to the present moment and deeply accepts us ‘as we are’, not how we wish to be.

Imagine for a moment how this supportive coach might relate to us. How would they look, and sound? What facial expression and tone of voice would they have? How would they help us approach our past mistakes and our self-improvement goals?

For example, after eating a multipack of crisps a critic may relate to us by saying “you’re so disgusting, you make me sick”, whilst a compassionate coach would have a more encouraging approach: “I know you ate those crisps because you are feeling bored and lonely, but now you feel even worse because you are not looking after your body. I want you to be happy and healthy, so why don’t you take a long walk so you feel better?”.

Compassionate, kind self-talk

Compassionate self-talk involves talking to ourselves the way we would talk to someone whom we love and want to support and encourage.

Think about the words you might say to someone else who was experiencing distress and how you might speak to them. Imagine saying the same phrases to yourself in the same way.

If you notice you are being critical towards yourself it can help to have some compassionate phrases to hand. Pick some statements that resonate most strongly with you from the following examples:

  • ‘This is a difficult moment and it will pass’
  • ‘I’m deserving of help and direction’
  • ‘It’s okay to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes’
  • 'I am going to be kind to myself in this moment’
  • ‘I’m going to be compassionate by………..’

You may find speaking to yourself with kindness and compassion difficult at times. Don’t give up - keep trying. Like any new skill, it requires practice but the benefits are worth it.

Kindness planner

Use our kindness planner to think about ways you can inspire kindness.

Not only will it improve your own health but it will also spread positivity and benefit those around you.

Read more of our articles celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week to see how kindness can positively impact your wellbeing.

Last updated Wednesday 24 February 2021

First published on Thursday 14 May 2020