Have you ever heard that little voice in your head that says you’re not quite good enough? That you don’t know what you’re doing while everyone else is completely sorted. And that you’re not doing enough and haven’t achieved enough.
In fact, overall you’re really just not enough.
I’ll let you in on a little secret… I’ve heard it too. Many times. And I’m not the only one.
Most of us are much more unkind so ourselves than to the people around us. We can be so unforgiving and pretty damn hard in that little inner dialogue that constantly runs through our head. The truth is, if we spoke to other people in the same way, well, I’m not sure how many friends we’d actually have.
You’ve probably heard the phrase that we can’t really love others until we love ourselves. This is more than a mushy sentiment.
Self-love, self-kindness, self-compassion – whatever you choose to call it – is a really important part of our wellbeing. And without it, it can be really difficult to build genuine, vulnerable and meaningful connection with ourselves, as well as with others.
A lack of self-kindness can also be a pervasive, unrecognised cause of stress (I’ve written before about how unhealthy stress can loom up large in our lives). It’s one of the elements that feeds a sense of perfectionism which makes it very difficult to live up to whatever unattainable standards you’ve set for yourself.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stretch yourself or aim towards expertise, but if you’re trapped in the crack cocaine of self-criticism, whatever you aim for is never quite enough. You always need more to get the same high and it’s a law of diminishing returns.
What is self-kindness
I really like the definition of self-kindness from Kristen Neff PhD, an expert on self-compassion:
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.
Actually, she also extends this to a wider definition of self-compassion which covers the realisation that a sense of suffering and personal inadequacy is very much part of being human. This is something that connects us to, rather than isolates us from, other people.
There’s then a third element in Dr Neff’s definition, which is a mindfulness of self-critical thoughts. While it’s important to allow and acknowledge, rather than suppress, negative thoughts, it’s not helpful to get caught up in them and the stories we tell ourselves.
This is also an essential part of any mindfulness and meditation practice, and it’s why cultivating mindfulness is a key way to develop self-kindness. And I will come on to this in a moment…
And why is self-kindness even important?
At its core, greater self-kindness and self-compassion helps us be more connected and happier human beings. But it’s also an important part of healing, of both the physical and emotional type.
For example, I used to get incredibly frustrated with my body when it seemed to not be functioning properly. However by working on the way in which I viewed and talked to myself about this, I’ve gained a much greater perspective and, at times, a level of acceptance.
My own journey towards more self-kindness
I know firsthand the impact of out of control self-criticism. It’s something I got pretty good at at an early age and it’s a trap I still fall into even now when I’m not careful.
I’ve always been something of a high achiever (yep, so I even wanted to excel at negative self talk!). I did well at school, I played piano in competitions and was in the top netball team. And sure, my parents wanted me to do well, but honestly, most of the pressure to “achieve” came from me.
I ended up studying law at uni as I had the grades and, not quite knowing what I wanted to do, this seemed a good option.
Then I hit the working world, though not as a lawyer as I had at least realised that wasn’t really my calling and left after 3 years of study to move to the UK. In each job I worked in, I always took on lots of extra tasks, worked weekends and late nights, and moved, bit by bit, up the ladder in various roles across a range of different industries. I gained lots of useful skills and actually did enjoy nearly all my work, apart from one slightly disastrous side move when I was working in the music industry in my mid-twenties.
And of course this kind of behaviour is rewarded in business. Unless you’re working for a really enlightened employer, it’s pretty easy to get a big confused about what’s actually important and what’s motivating you at a deeper level.
Every move I made, I kept hoping that this one would give me the self-validation and meaning I was hoping for. I thought this would come with increasing salary and seniority. Unfortunately this meaning only comes from the inside and I was working so hard that I didn’t really have time to listen. (A little caveat: you might also be working hard because you have found something meaningful; it’s just that this wasn’t the case for me!)
So what finally made me realise something was out of whack?
Well, as with most things in my life, it came down to what my body was telling me as, at that point, I wasn’t so attuned to my internal voice. I had an almighty digestion flare up (compounded by what I now realise was undiagnosed fibromyalgia) that laid me flat for a few months. The slight irony was that externally I was doing really well at work and life, and other than my husband and family, no one else really knew the struggle I was going through.
After many, many months of investigation as to what the problem was, I was fortunate enough to be given access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It was then that I learned about recognising what my therapist called the nasty parrot.
This is the voice that runs through your head as you happily trip along in your day and cuts you short with things like:
“Wow, you’re looking a bit fat today”
“You’re such an idiot for sending out that email to the whole company with a spelling mistake”
or, one of my favourites,
“How come I’m not saving the world and making a life full of meaning when all those people I admire are doing it already? How come I haven’t got my shit sorted out yet? I’m such a failure”.
Once I became much more aware of this voice, it was a starting point to responding more kindly rather than letting the negative chatter run on unchecked.
Sometimes I say “well, that’s not helpful” and at others, “that’s interesting – I wonder where that thought came from”. Slowly, slowly I’ve been able to turn around, at least some of the time, the thinking that was keeping me in a state of feeling not enough.
It’s also been a huge help in helping me better manage the long term health conditions that even now sometimes lay me low. I can’t say it makes me up-and-down jumpy happy when my IBS or fibromyalgia flare up, but it allows me to think much more kindly thoughts about my body when it’s in this troubled state.
A few tips on developing self-kindness
Spoiler alert, but self-kindness isn’t something that’s going to appear overnight. It takes time and practise. But it is definitely worth the effort!
1. A touch of mindfulness
One of the first stages is recognising, like with the nasty parrot, when self-critical thoughts are coming up for you. And this is where a touch of mindfulness comes in. Developing a greater sense of mindfulness helps you to be much more connected with your thinking and feeling. But it’s also more than this!
Using mindfulness-based meditations can actually help boost your levels of self-compassion (and I’d point you back again to the research done by Dr Kristen Neff if you’d like to explore some of these studies). In particular, there’s a beautiful meditation, calling a Loving Kindness or Metta meditation, which is directly linked to self-compassion. This is an ancient Buddhist meditation, which is also included in modern non-spiritual mindfulness programmes, which involves the repetition of a loving phrase. It’s one I often turn to when I’m feeling vulnerable.
If you’d like to try this meditation for yourself, I’ve included a link to a version by Tara Brach below. You might be surprised by some of the emotions that bubble up…
2. Repeating compassionate phrases (and repeating them again and again)
Repeating something, negative or positive, gets wired into our brains. But the good news is that these days we know about neuroplasticity, so if it’s something negative you’ve embedded, this isn’t fixed forever. Again, I’m not saying it’s easy to turn this type of talk around, but, with practise, it is possible.
Once you’ve mindfully started registering negative self-talk, the next stage is to start reframing some of the more pernicious thoughts with phrases that work for you. This might include turning:
“I made a big mistake, I’m such a failure” to “Making mistakes is human and it’s okay to mess up every now and then”.
“I’m so stupid” to “I have more to learn and I can learn” on even “I’m an intelligent, capable person”.
“Nobody could possibly love me” to “I’m a loving person and I have lots in me that someone else could care about”.
And, of course, one of the most essential phrases to repeat to yourself: “I am enough”.
It might feel a little silly to start with, but I promise that it will eventually feel more normal.
You might even want to write up 5 of your most common negative self-talk phrases and turn them into positive phrases to use when you notice them popping up in your thoughts.
3. Wabi-sabi: perfect imperfection
One of the other approaches that I’ve found helpful in being more compassionate with myself is embracing the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
This encompasses recognising the impermanence of life, as well as the pleasure of imperfection. In some artwork created under this principle, there are even deliberate ‘imperfections’ that add to the beauty of the work. Part of wabi-sabi is also acknowledging that things change and feelings pass, so again it’s not helpful getting caught up in negative stories as our feelings and mood states are ever changing.
The idea of wabi-sabi also reminds me of the wonderful orthodontist I used to see when I was a teenager. He was against creating mouths with perfect straight white teeth, so very much bucking the trend of cosmetic dentistry!
As a keen photographer, he showed me pictures he had created of smiling faces with perfectly matched left and right sides. And these so-called perfect faces looked a bit weird! He really wanted to make clear that the personality of a slightly crooked tooth (which is what I had and have) or a wonky smile was actually much more beautiful.
He was definitely a long way ahead of his time and it’s still something I remind myself about when I catch myself looking critically in the mirror. Rather than seeing my teeth as imperfect, I can see they create a smile that is unique to me.
My takeaway from all of this, is that to you’re not alone when it comes to harsh self-judgement.
And while it’s important to recognise and not run away from negative emotions, speaking to yourself in a more gentle and loving way is an important part of self-kindness.
And that through greater self-kindness we can build a stronger, more connected relationship with ourselves and therefore with others.
Which means that when life is good we can enjoy it more and at times when life gets tough it makes things just that bit more bearable.
Further reading & listening
I Heart Me: the science of self-love by David R. Hamilton PhD
self-compassion.org by Dr. Kristen Neff
Loving Kindness meditation by Tara Brach