Be kind to yourself; don't be cruel to yourself

Be Kind to Yourself

It’s a nice phrase, and I suspect a lot of us have listened to and just gone “yeah yeah, that’s nice, but what?”. It’s not a phrase that elicits any meaning for at least some of us. After all, when you’re feeling down/depressed, one of the things you do actually tend to do is “things I feel like”. (These are always healthy) Some of the things that people say as being kind to yourself - exercise, gardening are the sorts of things that some of us only do when we feel we should - not because we enjoy them.

And so it sits there, perhaps forever, as something irrelevant to us - because the phrase has no meaning.

For me this was definitely the case, until earlier this year I was asked - “Are you kind to yourself? When? What does it look like? What does it look like when you are being kind to yourself”. I had no idea how to answer the question. Honestly, none. So I went away and started looking in more details below the surface of what people mean by “being kind to yourself”.

One of the recurring themes was there are two halves: one is about doing things that you like, that are positive, productive and healthy. The other was could be said to be about forgiving yourself - for the little things as well as the big things. Like that picture you drew? Did you enjoy drawing it? Are there good things about it? Not “what’s bad about it?”. What’s that cake you made like? (“it’s dreadful, it didn’t rise” vs “I have cake. It tastes (almost) like cake!”)

That’s when I realised what they really mean about it.

You wouldn’t be cruel to a friend

If a friend of yours painted a picture at a fun workshop - what would your reaction be? Well, if it was a friend, you’d probably say something nice, not something cruel.

Well, if you were being cruel you might say “that looks nothing like what you were aiming to paint” or “those legs are too long” or “no one has hands like that” or “I thought it was meant to be a ”, or “I’m surprised it’s actually good” or “You’re improving, you might almost be as good as me someday”. (I mean you might say those things too if you were a dick, but it doesn’t change the fact it’s cruel)

If you cared about them, you’d be kind. You might say “It looks like you had fun”, or “that’s cool”, or “that’s really good”, or “you’ve improved so much!” or “I’m glad you did that”. You’d either the achievement for what it is, in a positive way.

I mean none of us are da Vinci’s!

Being kind starts there. It’s ultimately about not being cruel.

And yet, many of us critique ourselves in precisely that cruel way. “it looks nothing like what I was aiming for”, “those arms are too long”, “those hands are wrong”, “that cat looks like a car crash”, “I’m not good enough for this group”, “I’ll never succeed”. Many of these things actively prevent us from doing things we might otherwise enjoy.

Our Inner Critic - Inner Advocate

We all have our inner critic. It’s a healthy part of our psyche. However, for a number of us - too many perhaps - it steps over the line from being healthy to unhealthy. It causes fear of trying things, because you “know” you will fail. It trains you to look for what you’ve done that is bad - rather than that which you’ve done is good.

Understanding weakspots in personal performance is a way of focussing effort for improvement, and a good way at that - since it targets effort where effort is needed. However, only focussing on these leads to a negative cycle until all you can see is the bad.

If left unchecked - and it is for many - it results in a whole slew of negative impacts. Imposter syndrome, for example, is an example of being cruel to yourself.

What we don’t tend to do is encourage our inner advocates. These would naturally help balance out unhelpful internal criticism. For example “I’ve never been and will never be any good at this” leads to this sort of thing. By contrast if the focus was “well, last time you did this well, so next time you could improve again” is the sort of encouragement we all need from time to time.

Sadly, the inner critic is the sort of thing that defends us from doing things that ultimately can harm ourselves, which is why we listen to it so often. The child who hears from {a parent, a sibling, a teacher} that everything they do is destined to fail and be awful, will eventually when they’re older do this to themselves. Why? Because their inner critic was nurtured by this.

Building on this - those that are bullied for long enough eventually end up developing 2 survival mechanisms. a) getting their inner critic to pre-empt the external critic so that they can prepare themselves for the onslaught b) dampening/stomping down their inner advocate - due to the risk it represents. The upshot here is low self-confidence, low self esteem and a great fear of the external criticism coming in again.

So what does “Be Kind to yourself” mean?

… or mean to me?

Well, for me, I think it’s a number of things:

  • Allow yourself to do things because they’re an end in themselves - not something that needs judging as being good or bad. Just “was it fun (or useful) to do”. To accept outcomes for such things for what they are - an expression of trying something different.

  • Nurture your inner advocate - to see the positive in your life.

  • Reign in your inner critic - especially if it’s often cruel.

  • Stop making unrealistic comparisons. For example, budding artists are expected to study the greats - Da Vinci, Turner, Magritte and so on. But these artists and others like them were simply the best of all time. It ultimately leads people to comparing their work to those of the great masters, and ultimately, for most people, 2 possibilities: a) delusion that you’re as good as Da Vinci b) madness from despair at never being good enough.

  • If you must compare - and sometimes it’s healthy - compare like with like. But if for example, you’re a schoolchild and you make an error, it’s literally a schoolchild error. For someone who’s been doing a thing for a living to make such an error might be unexpected, maybe unacceptable and so on. For a schoolchild? Completely expected.

Right at the very beginning – at the top – I said that when you’re feeling down/depressed, one of the things you do actually tend to do is “things I feel like”. What’s missing from that though is that this is often accompanied by a feeling of guilt, or resignedness, or a feeling that “shouldn’t be doing this”. THAT is your inner critic going into overdrive and turning activities that could be viewed as positive into the negative, which is why the “be kind to yourself” idea fails to resonate - since its associated with negative connotations.

Don’t be cruel to yourself

Fundamentally, that’s the message. If a friend wouldn’t say it to you, then don’t say it to yourself. (Also, say the things to yourself that you’d like a friend to say.)

Recognising the times you’re cruel to yourself is important to stopping.

Am I any good at this? I could say “no, I’m terrible at this” and allow my inner critic to do the work, or I could nurture my inner advocate and say “I’m doing better than I was and I’m improving”. Both phrases are technically correct, and I still think of the “I’m terrible…” phrase first, but by trying I’m now at least seeing what the advocate version looks like, so that’s a massive improvement.

So yeah, don’t be cruel to yourself.

Updated: 2021/07/05 23:33:33