Learning the Lessons of Self-Kindness
Anti-Bullying Week takes place this year from the 15th to the 19th November and this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word’.
What is kindness? It’s a question I have considered deeply. Not because I was initially interested in the topic, but because life brought me circumstances where I had no choice but to look more closely and explore what we mean when we talk about kindness.
Following a period of burnout in my professional and personal life, I was depleted: emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
If you have ever experienced burnout, then you’ll know that the exhaustion is all-consuming. It’s also confusing. The exhaustion I experienced wasn’t felt in a traditional “I can’t get out of bed” way (although for some it is) but more in an emotional shut-down of my mind. I just didn’t have the energy to give any more of my self.
Simply put – I realised that I had not been and was not being kind to myself. The realisation hit me with such force and intensity that I found myself feeling uncomfortable with embarrassment and shame at first.
“How could it be that I had lived this long and had no real foundation or understanding of self-kindness?”
“Wasn’t self-kindness something for people who had low self-esteem?”
“Hadn’t I always made sure I put myself first in life?” (Hint: this is not self-kindness!)
“And if I wasn’t being kind to myself, how could I authentically be kind to anyone else?”
Benefits of Kindness
The health benefits of kindness have been well documented. According to Dr David R. Hamilton – a leader in the field of the mind body connection – acts of kindness create emotional warmth, which releases the hormone oxytocin which lowers blood pressure.
Additionally, kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population.
Furthermore, kindness increases our energy levels and confidence, makes us happier and more satisfied with life, and improves our mood.
In 2018, a Spanish company wanted to explore the health benefits of kind acts. Workers were asked to either a) perform acts of kindness for colleagues, or b) count the number of kind acts they received from co-workers. The results showed that those who received acts of kindness became happier, demonstrating the value of benevolence for the receiver. However, those who delivered the acts of kindness benefited even more than the receivers. They reported an increase in job and life satisfaction as well as a decrease in depression.
Vulnerability is Key
So, it’s clear that kindness is a win-win situation. Why then does it seem to be lacking in our daily lives? Why is social media awash with unkindness, mean comments and bullying?
In the midst of my period of burnout, one kind word from family and friends was guaranteed to bring about either emotional pain that resulted in increased sensitivity or defensiveness. I didn’t want to be associated as a person who needed help or a kind word – that was for other people, not me!
And yet, here was another realisation: to benefit from kindness from others you have to be willing to be vulnerable and allow that kindness in.
This made me wonder if all kind words and kind acts begin with vulnerability – from both the giver of the kind words and the receiver. In those magical moments of giving and receiving there is a tenderness and a fragility that unites two people who have chosen to be vulnerable in that moment.
Toolkit for Self-Kindness
So, self-kindness was something I possessed, it was just my fear of being vulnerable that was preventing it from showing up in my life.
It was at this point that a friend suggested I create a Self-Compassion Plan, which sounded a bit naff at first, but which I realised I could tailor to my own needs and play around with.
Some of the things I included were:
Paying attention to self-talk
How often do we criticise and talk to ourselves in harsh, unforgiving tones? Would we speak that way to a close friend? Remember our unconscious mind doesn’t really understand language – but it does respond to tonality, speed of talking and body language. So, we need to practice talking to ourselves in soft soothing tones – just as we would talk to a baby – slowing down our speech and relaxing our bodies.
I’ve done yoga on and off for many years. For most of that time, I interpreted yoga as ‘exercise’ – something to benefit the physical body only.
However, during my recovery I discovered yoga to be an incredible force for emotional and spiritual healing. I began to understand the role of the breath and learned that yoga was quite simply a form of meditation – of taking oneself more deeply into the present moment. This experience has led me to moments of self-love and self-kindness which I have come to value deeply.
Becoming aware of the present moment – your breathing, the quality of air around you, what you can see, hear and smell. Even if only for one minute, this is something I try to incorporate throughout the day.
Making time for the people and things I truly love
A tough one for me, but one I’m slowly getting better at. For me this includes spending quality time with friends and family, actively listening to others, swimming, dancing, laughing and travelling.
Sharing Self-Kindness with others
I believe that one kind word to another human being is demonstrating an ability to share your own self-kindness. As they say – “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.
Asking someone if they’re okay, what their day was like and how they’re feeling, are all questions we must ask ourselves first. As ordinary as this sounds, it is also deeply radical. It is from this starting point that we can, with our willingness to be vulnerable, demonstrate true kindness to another and in doing so, make our communities and societies a kinder, more tolerant and inclusive place to live.
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