As many people will be aware, this week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. This year’s theme, in light of the current circumstances in the world, is kindness. Now more than ever, acting with kindness is crucial — not just to others but to ourselves.
The pandemic has affected people in many different ways, and introduced a whole new range of stressors into people’s lives. There’s discomfort about adjusting to working from home, or being out of work entirely, being away from family, or juggling work with childcare and home responsibilities — and for many, a deeper sense of existential unease.
Alongside this, news sites and social media are overflowing with ideas and inspiration for how to ‘make the most’ of this time. Whilst well-meaning, the abundance of suggestions can create a sense of pressure — underneath is the implication that there is a right way to be living through this.
Such endless suggestions for how to fill our time can give rise to feelings of inadequacy if we don’t perceive ourselves to be doing enough. If we aren’t baking our own bread, training for a marathon, knitting our own clothes or learning a new language, are we really making the best of the situation?
When thoughts like these arise, it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves whether this is really the healthiest approach — if we do find ourselves with more spare time at home than usual, do we really need to cram it full with new activities?
By overloading ourselves with things to do, we can end up adding unnecessary pressure to an already challenging time, and in turn increase our risk of ending up feeling completely drained and burnt out.
If there’s a new project or hobby that you truly feel drawn to, then now may indeed be an ideal time to try it out. What we need to look out for is when we find ourselves thinking that we should be doing this or that. There’s no need to be adding unnecessary demands to our lives at this time.
At the heart of this approach lies an attitude of kindness to oneself. Of listening to your own needs, accepting them without judgement, and doing what works best for you.
Dr Kristin Neff is a leading researcher in the field of self-compassion, and her work has identified three core elements of the concept:
The first is known as self-kindness. This means treating yourself with an attitude of warmth and understanding — not judging or criticising yourself, and being aware of any negative self-talk.
Ask yourself: ‘Would I say this to a friend?’
The second element is the idea of common humanity — that we are all human, and we all experience ups and downs. Imperfections, mistakes and failures, disappointment, pain and unpleasant emotions are all part of our shared human experience. Simply remembering this can put things into perspective, and help us to be less harsh on ourselves when things aren’t going well.
The final key element of self-compassion is mindfulness. Only by being aware and accepting of our experience can we see clearly what our own needs are and respond with kindness. Central to this balanced view is allowing yourself to feel all of your emotions — not pushing them away, berating or judging them.
‘We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time,’ writes Neff. And as meditation teacher Shinzen Young noted: Suffering = Pain x Resistance.
The alternative is instead approaching emotions with an attitude of open-hearted curiosity as best you can, whilst also remembering that thoughts and feelings are transient; they will always come and go, and they do not define you.
Aren’t there downsides?
The Mental Health Foundation explains, ‘Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity and help boost our self-esteem. Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism.’
Many people are skeptical, however — won’t being kind to myself make me lazy and unmotivated? Isn’t it selfish and indulgent? Doesn’t it seem ‘weak’? The research shows otherwise.
Being compassionate to yourself has been found to actually increase motivation, along with general psychological health, emotional intelligence, body image and interpersonal functioning.
It also builds emotional resilience — the benefits of which are clear in the current circumstances: resilience equips us to be able to cope with uncertainty and instability, and to persevere through stressful times.
In fact, self-compassion even minimises the stress response in the first place, and serves as a buffer against anxiety. It’s also been linked to greater life-satisfaction and improved mood, overall increased wellbeing, a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction with personal relationships — and fortunately, it can be learned over time.
Putting it into practice
So what might being kind to yourself during these times look like?
A good place to start is taking time to think — to be mindful of your own experience and how you are feeling about it. If you’re finding it hard to remember, it might help to stick notes around your workspace or home as physical reminders to check in with yourself, or setting reminders on your phone.
If you frequently find yourself being self-critical, you could also create similar reminders to be kind to yourself.
It’s important to remember that life isn’t ‘normal’ at the moment, and therefore it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect yourself to be performing at your best.
Opportunities to show yourself kindness might include:
- Being gentle with yourself if you’re finding it difficult to focus or struggling to be as productive as usual
- Being selective about what activities you choose to engage with
- Saying no when you want to say no (remembering that you aren’t obligated to accept every invitation to a virtual happy hour, for example)
- Setting boundaries — with work and home life increasingly merged, putting in place whatever boundaries work for you
- Taking time away from technology
- Reaching out for support — whether that’s to a friend, family member, or having a conversation with your manager
- Listening to your body — if you’re finding that you’re more tired than usual, allowing yourself more sleep if you can
- Taking breaks and allocating time to yourself each day
There is no ‘right way’ to be living, so focus on finding what is best for you. Comparing your choices to others’ is unlikely to be helpful; your needs will not be exactly the same.
If in doubt, prioritise the simple things: spending time in nature (if it’s safe to do so), connecting with others, eating nutritious food, getting quality sleep, and moving your body.
…And above all, doing this with an attitude of patience, warmth and acceptance.