Have you ever noticed how you might be being unkind to yourself? This might be in your expectations of yourself. It might be in the way you treat yourself physically. It might be in the way you treat yourself mentally.
- Do you allow yourself breaks or are you always busy?
- Are you able to say "no" to other people's needs, in order to say "yes" to your own needs?
- Do you comfort yourself when you make a mistake, or do you tell yourself off?
- Are you critical of things like your appearance, your fitness, your mothering, your abilities?
Do you speak to yourself in a way that you would never dream of speaking to a friend?
Or - would your friends speak to you in the way you speak to yourself?
Why are we so unkind to ourselves? Why do we set ourselves much higher expectations than we set those around us? What are we hoping to achieve?
The Inner Critic
There is one school of thought that suggests we are self-critical in order to protect ourselves from shame and rejection. This can be especially true if we have been bullied, either at home or at school. We learn to protect ourselves from the criticism of others by anticipating it and correcting ourselves.
We develop what is called "the inner critic". We avoid the pain of other people criticising us by criticising ourselves.
Underlying this is a fundamental belief that we are not enough. Because we are not good enough, we need to constantly be on our guard to watch that we don't slip up. We tell ourselves we are lazy, selfish, disorganised, controlling, time wasters, needy, no good. The list goes on.
The problem with an inner critic is it is very stifling. We imagine what others' criticism of us will be and we try to avoid it by conforming to our perception of group "norms". This means we find it difficult to be creative and to be ourselves.
It also saps our confidence in ourselves. The constant nagging of the inner critic makes us feel fearful of trying anything new. We notice our flaws rather than noticing our strengths. We imagine ourselves incapable of meeting challenge.
How to Develop Self-Kindness
The first step is to acknowledge our resistance
When we've learned that somehow we are unworthy - not good enough - it is very difficult to accept that we deserve to be treated differently. We think to ourselves "it's all very well you talking about being kind, but you don't know how bad I am. If you did, you'd know I'm not worth it".
This is the voice of shame. We often call it "guilt". However guilt is when we know we have done a specific thing wrong. Shame is when we just feel bad about ourselves. Guilt says "I did wrong", shame says "I am wrong".
Shame makes us feel as though we do not belong to the human race. It singles us out and makes us feel different. It makes us feel undeserving and this creates resistance to kindness.
The concept of "common humanity" can help here. Rather than thinking that we only belong to humanity when we get things right, common humanity says that it is the very imperfection of which we're ashamed that makes us human. We are all imperfect beings. We all get it wrong.
The next step is recognise the voice of the inner critic
This is a tough ask. We're so used to thinking badly of ourselves that we don't even notice the inner critic. We don't even realise that there is an alternative to thinking badly about ourselves. We've bought into all the lies that we've been fed about our self-worth.
It does help to take a step back and ask yourself what you would say to a friend in similar circumstances to your own. Would you really speak to them like this? If not, then perhaps there's an alternative way to speak to yourself.
Recognising the voice of the inner critic takes practice. It is about understanding that this is just one part of you speaking. There are alternatives.
Some people find it helpful to give their critic a name. This helps them to separate out the critical voice from other possible ways of viewing the situation.
It may also be helpful to speak with someone who can gently challenge the "truth" of what the inner critic is saying. When shame has been living with you for many years, it can be very difficult to accept that you can be viewed differently.
Then let kindness emerge
Kindness is innate to humans. It is part of being a mammal. It enables mammals to survive because it evolved to enable mammals to care for their young.
Shame, self-criticism and self-loathing keep self-kindness locked away.
If we can begin to challenge our reluctance to allow ourselves to be enough - despite our imperfections - we will find that we can be kinder to ourselves than we imagined possible.
Shame is a significant block to self-kindness. If you're struggling to be kind to yourself, it can help to talk to a counsellor. Counselling helps by enabling people to identify, and heal from, the cause of shame. Counsellors can help people to recognise how they are blocking themselves from kindness and a fulfilling life. Please contact me if you would like to know more.