Forget lockdown, quarantine, social distancing and even coronavirus, if we had to choose a word to remember 2020 by, we want it to be ‘kindness’. Amid a global pandemic, many of us realised the benefit of simply being nice. Not being around our loved ones made the absence of little things really go noticed (no co-workers surprising you with your favourite coffee and casual smiles with strangers as they walked past hidden by masks), so we took matters into our own hands: the search term ‘random acts of kindness’ more than tripled since 2019, according to greetings card brand Thortful.
But among all of this caring for others, we may have been forgetting one very important thing: being kind to ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable idea – but it’s an essential part of the flow of kindness. “Kindness is a multi directional concept,” explains Gosia Bowling, emotional wellbeing enhancement and prevention lead at Nuffield Health. “There’s kindness from yourself to others, there’s kindness from others back to ourselves, and there’s the kindness that we experience from ourselves to ourselves.”
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While being kind to others can sometimes be tricky, we are usually pretty good at immediately rushing to the side of someone we see in pain or distress. Conversely, we are less accepting of kindness if it is directed at us (who here can’t accept a compliment?), but we particularly struggle with the idea of self-kindness.
“I think that’s because there are so many unhelpful myths and misconceptions around kindness,” says Gosia. “People think that being self-compassionate means lowering self-expectations or standards, letting themselves off the hook too easily and getting lazy. Or they think it will make them selfish and self-obsessed, particularly women who are raised to believe that they should put themselves last.
“Actually, true compassion for ourselves has teeth. It means being honest and accountable for our actions, but it’s done with an understanding of what it really means to be human. For some reason, we think we need pain in order to gain, but the research shows that if we’re really self critical, it’s far more destructive.” One such piece of research is a 2007 study from the University of Texas which found that those who are most self-compassionate achieve more skill-based goals and have a better perception of their performance.
But back to 2020. It’s clear that the year changed our relationship with kindness, but perhaps not always for the best. The beginning of the pandemic saw us celebrating others with weekly doorstep pan banging, if not daily with drives to sew scrubs for the NHS, bake sourdough for our friends and check in with multiple people multiple times a day. We’re now facing exhaustion.
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“We’re struggling with not having anything left to give, we’re running out of energy and we’re running out of motivation. That’s when kindness becomes difficult – you can’t pour from an empty cup, but you feel like you need to look after those around you. Recognising that if we don’t look after ourselves we can’t give to anybody else is important,” says Gosia. The evidence would agree: a 2016 study looking at self-compassion in nurses found that higher levels of self-kindness are linked with lower levels of burnout, and “when community nurses have greater compassion satisfaction they also report more compassion for others”.
So, how do we do that? “It’s helpful to think about building kindness in the same way you build physical strength. It will be uncomfortable and difficult, but you need to incorporate the workout into your everyday life,” says Gosia.
Have a kindness coach
No, that doesn’t mean you need to spend a load of money getting someone to say nice things to you. Rather, it’s about talking to yourself as though you were someone else to make your self-talk more compassionate. “Using sort of somebody else to be kind when we’re finding self kindness quite difficult can help you refocus your thoughts and feelings. Build in an image of somebody that’s a wise and trusted ally who is really on your side and get them to guide you when you need them,” says Gosia.
Think about how that coach might relate to you, how they would sound, what sort of facial expression they would have, what they would tell you, how they would approach your past mistakes and what they would think of your self improvement goals, for example. When you start to beat yourself up for not getting to the gym, think about what your coach would say.
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For those who need to be kinder to themselves about their body or work on body acceptance, the key is to stop comparing your worst to someone else’s best. “We all cherry pick the best bits of everybody else; you want one person’s smile, somebody else’s hair, another person’s legs,” explains Gosia. She suggests that we need to start looking at others, and ourselves, as the whole person “rather than just focusing on our perceived flaws and their perceived strengths”.
One way to open up the narrow view of self-criticism is to look at or write down the things you like about your body, whether it’s your hands or your hips. But also think wider – how does this relate to who you are in the world or who you are as a person? How does your smile make others feel, for example? Hopefully you will realise that not much of the physical stuff matters anyway.
Change your language
“The language that we use around mental health is really damaging,” says Gosia. “It’s all about disorders and distress and things that are wrong with you, but we need to adopt a dialogue that’s more about everyday experiences.”
As with physical health, good mental health isn’t just about the absence of disease, but also about training our mental fitness. “People think that unless they have a diagnosed condition then they can’t get help, but we need to constantly work on ourselves to be mentally fit to prevent illness, but also accept that we may not have control of it and be able to treat it when necessary,” says Gosia. “When the language is so medical, we ignore everyday distress, but we need to be able to talk about it and include behaviours that support it every single day.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).