How do you learn to go gentle on yourself? Where do you begin to teach self-love? I asked a favorite blogger of mine, Margarita Tartakovsky, who is Associate Editor at Psych Central, and the author of the blog Weightless. Margarita writes often on this topic, so I thought I’d pick her brain and dispense her wisdom to my readers.
How do you begin to be kind to yourself?
I think taking small steps is key. When you’ve spent years bashing yourself, the idea of kindness not only seems foreign. It seems utterly daunting. So start slow.
For instance, when you wake up tomorrow, ask yourself: What’s the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?
This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or fancy. We’re not talking spa days here, unless, of course, that’s something that you’d like to do. The kindest thing might be to sit at the kitchen table, and savor your breakfast. Or to spend a few extra minutes in the shower. Or to reschedule an appointment because you’re stressed out and need to free up your day.
Ask yourself this question every day or throughout the day. Ask it now, and jot down a few ideas of kind actions. Ask it on the days you don’t feel like it, because that’s when you’ll need your own kindness most.
What are some specific exercises or strategies that you recommend?
Here are several exercises to try:
Ask yourself variations of: Would I do or say that to my best friend? We’re so quick to bash ourselves for making a mistake or not looking a certain way. And we’re so quick to think we don’t have time to take care of ourselves. Every time you have a negative thought about something you did or didn’t do, or you think you don’t deserve kindness, ask yourself variations of that question: Would I do or say this to my best friend? How would I suggest she or he take kinder care of themselves? What would I say if my best friend made the same mistake? What would I do or say if my best friend was going through the same thing?
Think of yourself as the little one you once were. I wrote about this recently, and it’s a technique I’ve been trying myself: When you find yourself being mean or wanting to punish yourself, think of yourself as a child. As I wrote on Weightless: “I think of…how I’d treat the little girl I once was: the shy, small girl who moved to America and went straight to second grade, without knowing a single word of English. I think back to that girl, and how she deserves to be treated.”
Pay attention to your body. Many of us don’t just bash our bodies (and ourselves). We simply stop paying attention. We even neglect our most basic needs. Today or tomorrow, set your phone alarm to ring every hour, and just ask yourself how you’re feeling in that moment. Then actually respond to your body’s signal. If you feel pangs of hunger, eat. If you’re thirsty, drink some water. If your hands hurt, give yourself a mini massage. If you feel stiff, stretch your body, or go outside and take a short walk.
Engage in joy. It’s also helpful to write down a few activities or events that bring you joy. Maybe that’s reading on your porch, or taking a long bath or shower. Maybe that’s dancing in your house to your favorite CD. Or having lunch with a friend once a week, or riding your bike. You don’t have to wait to love or even like yourself before doing enjoyable things. Just do them. Like Therese once wisely told me, take action, and your brain will follow.
What are the most common traps we fall into as far as beating ourselves up?
I think one of the most common traps, and one I’ve struggled with a lot, is the belief that you can like yourself or be kind to yourself once you do X or Y. When you get an A on a test. When you become the perfect mother. When you lose weight. When you have a certain job or salary.
We set certain conditions or parameters around how we treat and feel about ourselves. We think we need to earn our own (and others’) respect and love and compassion with accomplishments and accolades.
Think about your love for your close ones. Is it conditional? Probably not. For instance, we don’t stop loving our kids because they’ve made a mistake. Remind yourself of this, especially when kindness feels particularly far away.
Another common trap is habit. For many of us, bashing ourselves started a long time ago, and, today, it comes incredibly naturally. Get up, go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and your brain already spits out an insult. Wow, you look like crap this morning. We don’t even realize we’re doing it.
This kind of self-talk can really erode our ability to practice self-kindness. That’s why it’s helpful to listen to the thoughts swirling in your brain. Pay attention to them. When cruel thoughts arise, dispute them. Say, “Today, I’m practicing kindness.” Replace them with other thoughts, such as “I’m doing the best I can.” Think of them as clouds passing in the sky. Write them down, and then throw away the piece of paper.
It sounds so cliché, but it’s also so true: Life is too short to beat ourselves up, to miss out on the small and big blessings surrounding us because our brains are busy with hateful thoughts, or because we believe we don’t deserve to bask in the beauty.
Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.