– Have you tried being kind to yourself?
– Kind? To myself? And how is that supposed to help?
That is a recurring theme in my conversations with clients. They think badly of themselves and it hasn’t even occurred to them that it could be different. When they relate their inner dialogues, this is how they sound: ‘I can’t get anything right’, ‘Everyone can do it but me’, ‘I’m hopeless’, ‘I’m not good enough for anyone’. Radical, harsh, black-and-white statements. The very same people usually don’t judge anyone else so harshly, but for some reason they think they even should treat themselves this way.
Where does the harsh self-evaluation come from?
Most often it is not a conscious choice. No one simply decides one day: ‘And now I am going to treat myself the worst possible way’. We learn how to treat ourselves early in life by observing how people we consider important – parents, carers, teachers – relate to us. If they are constantly correcting us, even though we try hard, we may come to the conclusion that we will never be as is expected of us. If they continuously ignore our needs, even though we try to express them, we are very likely to end up considering those needs unimportant, too.
A message repeated a thousand times over
As time goes by, the external voices transform into an internal voice which, especially when we are feeling bad or experiencing difficulties, serves to remind us that this is the obvious turn of events because we are ‘inferior’, so what did we actually expect. Over the years, we keep repeating this to ourselves hundreds or thousands of times – and the more familiar something is, the more true it seems (similar principles underlie the effectiveness of propaganda). And, in turn, the easier it is for us to notice everything that confirms our truth.
Everyone who does everything better
A vicious circle is created because our internal radar is usually set to detect what is in line with our deepest beliefs. At that point, we can really get the impression that others are coping with their lives with ease and ‘there’s something wrong’ with us and only us. We gain a selective perception because we neither know these mythical ‘everyone’ nor are familiar with ‘everything’ they do. Above all, however, we discredit our own achievements. Even if we are able to list a few of our successes – they don’t seem to be anything special and, in fact, of ‘anyone-could-do-that’ type.
Being nice to yourself doesn’t have a good press
Let’s be honest: seeing yourself in a positive light is not very popular. There are a lot of misunderstandings about being good to yourself. Is it the right thing to do? What will others think? One mustn’t be selfish! And isn’t that just making people lazy? In popular discourse, ‘be good to yourself’ amounts to ‘put on a face mask and light a lavender-scented candle’. Being kind to others is socially desirable. Being kind to yourself – not necessarily. This is also something we learn – to fit in, to meet expectations, not to boast, not to enjoy it too much. But does it serve anyone’s interest, really?
When we treat ourselves badly, we feel bad
Unfortunately, ignoring who we are and punishing ourselves for who we can’t be is very destructive. Many people driven by low self-esteem work hard in order to finally ‘deserve’ and ‘be enough” until, after years of such efforts, they hit a wall. Exhaustion sets in, health starts to fail and the efforts are still not duly appreciated by the world. But even when those people do come to sessions, they often still want to ‘fix’ themselves – they just expect more effective tools. If that is the case, the higher self-esteem is only a means to an end as it is viewed as a platform allowing them to do more and finally meet the excessively demanding standards.
How about being supportive to yourself
The suggestion to start by being kind to yourself sometimes comes as a surprise. However, these positive emotions directed at yourself are the best foundations for building a good life. Being supportive and kind to yourself brings about better outcomes than harsh and critical attitude. It is a positive state of mind that makes us more open, creative, attentive and prone to learning more easily. We feel better and have more energy. Others, in turn, also feel better in our company, given our increased patience, empathy, and more willingness to cooperate.
Start by listening to yourself carefully
So what should be the first step if being kind to yourself doesn’t come naturally to you? When we want to give support to another person, we first need to find out what they need and what is important to them. With you – it works in a similar way: the first step is simply to listen. Paying attention to how you feel, how you find your life, your work, your relationships and what is your attitude to yourself. Do the things that you put your time, emotions and energy into benefit you, bring you contentment, satisfaction, joy and fulfilment?
If a friend was suffering a heartbreak, would you tell her: ‘See, it’s always the same story with you – you have a defect of some sort, it’s better not to try any more’? If a friend was at risk of losing his job, would you say: ‘Of course you’re the one they’ll get rid of because you’re the worst there and everyone knows it’? So don’t say that to yourself either. The same words that come to mind when you need to offer your support to someone – now address to yourself. Say: ‘That’s how relationships sometimes end, but see, you have fond memories and you’ve learned something’, ‘It’s true there are some layoffs coming up, maybe let’s wait and see if they affect you and then decide the next steps’. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to count on yourself in difficulties?
Find balance in your beliefs
Try to make sure that what you think about yourself is not of absolute and judgmental nature. Be more gentle when formulating these thoughts. ‘Not everything works out for me’ is different from ‘I can’t do anything right’. Stick to the facts. ‘Jurek doesn’t want me” may be true, but ‘Nobody wants me’ is not. Find exceptions. To ‘I’m behind with everything’ add ‘…but I finished the report on time’. See the bigger picture, place things in the real context, recognise the complexity of the situation. Reflect on the meaning of your messages. ‘Worthless’ means what exactly? And how does it differ from ‘worthwhile’?
Everyone succeeds in something and everyone gets something from others. Start noticing this, even if it meant appreciating the good sandwich you made yourself or the ‘good morning’ your neighbour said to you. It is very much a matter of practice. The more you notice, the easier it becomes. You reset your internal radar and eventually you get the feeling that there are more and more good things happening. In fact, it is quite likely that there will be more of them, as appreciation will motivate you and others around you to act.
Believe at least a little in what people who are kind to you actually say
Positive messages seem to ‘bounce back’ from people who perceive themselves negatively. He said that – but surely out of pity. She praised – but because it was the right thing to do. He was just saying that. He was mistaken. Or doesn’t know much about it. She is my friend, so what else was she supposed to do. If you think so – ask yourself whether those people whose opinions you generally trust are really so wrong about you. Are they telling everyone things they don’t really think, or are you the only target of such comments? Maybe it is worth listening to them or even asking for clarification.
Forgive yourself and own your mistakes
Achieving perfection is neither realistic nor a prerequisite for a happy life. On the contrary, happiness will eventually seem to be hiding just around the corner all the time nowhere near where we happen to be. We have all made, are making and will make mistakes. No tolerance for mistakes is an attempt to deny the obvious and the inevitable. Forgiving yourself, on the other hand, causes that instead of reliving our past mistakes – we learn from them and leave them where they belong – in the past.
Set your boundaries and guard them
Setting boundaries is extremely difficult when we don’t listen to ourselves and believe that what is ‘ours’ deserves less attention and care. When we put ourselves in an inferior position from the start, it seems obvious that we have to try harder, give more, adjust, shy away from facts. But think about it – after all, you are valuable too. Your time, your emotions, your efforts are valuable. By setting boundaries, you reassure yourself of that. This may be scary at first, but in the long run, it will make you stronger and harmonise your life.
Don’t fall into the other extreme
On a final note, let’s discuss what being good to yourself is not. It’s not about simply replacing ‘I’m worse’ with ‘I’m better’. Nor is it about noticing only positive outcomes and ignoring difficulties. It’s not about being grateful for everything indiscriminately. Nor about giving yourself only positive messages. It’s not about ignoring your mistakes. Nor about twisting the story so that it is only others for a change that need to make an effort. It’s about truth and fairness in the way you treat yourself. About recognising your own lights and shadows. It is about balance and favouring yourself – which I sincerely wish you.