When my sister drops my nephew off at preschool, she often says to him, "Remember, make kind choices!"
I love this. Teaching our children to be gentle and considerate with others is so important, and I love that kindness is such foundational learning for little ones.
I wonder though, if we might expand this teaching to help children learn how to not only be gentle with others, but also be kind to themselves. Actually, I think we could all learn to be gentler and kinder with ourselves.
In fact, plenty of research (79 studies, to be exact, of a total of over 16,000 people from across the globe!) shows that those who practice self-kindness are actually more likely to be happy. So if you're interested in bringing a little more self-kindness into your life (and likely feeling happier for it), here are a few steps to do so.
1) Notice your inner voice. What kinds of thoughts go through your mind when you mess up or when things don't go your way? Are they critical thoughts? If so, you're not alone. Many people have a harsh inner critic who can find fault in almost any situation. If you haven't heard the term "inner critic" before, it's that voice in your head that might say when you make a mistake, "Why did you do that again? What's wrong with you? You never get this right! Why do you even bother?" Harsh stuff, right?! Maybe when you're stuck in traffic, running late for work, it says, "Late, again? Everyone at work is going to think you're a slacker. You can never get it together in the mornings." Our inner critics can be really discouraging, but we don't have to be held hostage by them. If you notice you hear that critical inner voice often, read on.
2) Notice how you feel when that inner critic has the stage. What do you feel in body when your inner critic is forefront in your thoughts? Maybe a pit in your stomach, or a flush over your cheeks, or even a bit nauseous? These are just a few of many possible reactions. And what emotions come up? For many of us, shame, embarrassment, sadness, and discouragement are really common reactions to our inner critic. Notice how your inner critic makes you feel.
3) Now, let's take one of those situations above and flip the inner voice around. Imagine that instead of having an inner critic, you have an inner soother or an inner compassionate (maybe you want to call it your inner mamma, your inner best friend, your inner auntie -- whatever fits for you is perfect).
Take a moment to flesh out this kind voice. Think of someone in your life who provides words of solace and wisdom to you when you're feeling down. If you don't have someone like this in your life, imagine a warm, nurturing caregiver--maybe it's your grandmother who has passed away, your mom or dad when you were little, a character you saw in a movie, a friend's auntie ... you can use your imagination here.
Another way to cultivate this voice is to imagine what you would say to your best friend, or if you're a parent, imagine what you would say to your own child. How would you encourage and soothe them when they come to you feeling like their world is falling apart?
Now, apply that kind inner voice to a situation where you really blew it. Would this person you're picturing be critical and say the sorts of things your inner critic might? What might they say instead? Perhaps something like, "Oh sweetheart, what a terrible experience. I'm so sorry you had such an awful day. Gosh, isn't that the worst? Bad days happen to us all. I know it hurts right now, but it's going to get better." That's just an example; use words that fit for you.
Notice how those kind, comforting words sit in your body when you think them and feel them. What feelings come up for you? Is this experience and feeling different than what you felt with the words the inner critic spoke? Sadness may still be there, but is there also comfort, solace, warmth? Notice if it feels better for you to comfort yourself rather than criticize yourself.
And just like that, you've shown yourself kindness and compassion. Often a much different experience than the self-criticism we often automatically barrage ourselves with throughout the day. Sometimes we really need to treat ourselves as gently and kindly as we tell our kids to treat others.
Remember, the first step is simply to let your ears perk up when you hear that critical inner voice or feel those feelings of shame or discouragement. Ask yourself what's going through your head. You don't have to be critical of your inner critic or feel bad that you have one--we all have one! Instead, just show that critic the door and instead bring that inner soother, inner mamma, inner compassionate to mind, and let her or him speak words of comfort and encouragement. And finally, notice any shift that happens in your emotions or in the way you feel in your body.
It takes time and practice to develop the self-kindness muscle so don't be discouraged when that inner critic keeps making an appearance--it happens to all of us, just keep at it. And if you need help getting started, shining a light on that inner critic, cultivating that compassionate voice, or going a bit deeper, counselling can be a safe place to do that. I'm here if you need me.