Using Self-Kindness to Cope with Stress
“In all the greatest spiritual traditions, at their heart is tenderness, just to be kind inside, and then everything rights itself. Fear rests. Confusion rests.”
Most of us today are suffering from the stress that chaos and uncertainty can bring. Self-kindness, an important aspect of self-compassion, has been proven to help reduce stress.
Being kind to oneself can come naturally to those who believe they deserve it. Unfortunately, for many people, including those who experienced abuse or neglect in childhood, shame may have kept you from feeling kind toward yourself in much the same way that it may have been difficult to accept kindness from others. You may not believe that you deserve to be treated with the same patience, tenderness and comfort that you might naturally feel for a loved one.
However, if you have reduced some of your shame in therapy or by reading my book, It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion, you may now be more open to believing you deserve self-kindness. You may not know how to treat yourself with loving kindness, but if you now believe you deserve it, then this article will help you learn how to practice it. I’ve divided this article into two parts.
In Part I. I will define what self-kindness actually is, what it feels like, and what providing it for yourself looks like on a practical level. Then I’ll help you find ways to begin to provide it for yourself. Even those who have the hardest time with this concept and practice will find that you will be able to experience the healing that comes with self-kindness if you are willing to practice the suggested strategies and complete the exercises in this article.
What is self-kindness exactly? Let’s start by defining kindness, not with a dictionary definition, but from a feeling perspective. When you think of someone being kind, what comes to mind? What does kindness look like? What behaviors do you think of? What does kindness feel like?
When I think of kindness I think of someone being gentle, patient, caring, warm, open-hearted, giving, non-judgmental, welcoming. You may have thought of some other words that define kindness for you.
Those of us who were abused or neglected in childhood are usually keenly aware of kindness. Most especially, we are keenly aware of when it is missing. We long for it, we look for it in the eyes, in the faces, in the hearts of others. And if and when we receive it, we are deeply touched by it.
Think about the people in your life who have been kind to you. Who treated you with interest and concern? Who made you feel like you mattered, like you were special?
Most people define self-kindness as providing for yourself the patience, acceptance, caring and whatever words you used to describe kindness. But it is so much more. Self-kindness involves generating feelings of care and comfort toward oneself. Instead of being self-critical, self-kindness involves being tolerant of our flaws and inadequacies. It also involves learning simple tools for giving ourselves the support we need whenever we suffer, fail or feel inadequate.
Kristin Neff stated in her landmark book, Self-Compassion, (2011) that self-kindness involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would a dear friend in need. It involves allowing ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain and suffering and then asking ourselves, “How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?”
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to learn to treat yourself with kindness if you haven’t experienced much kindness from others. It often helps to mimic the way one of the people who have been kind to you treated you.
Learning to practice self-kindness will take time and practice. I recommend creating a self-kindness practice. This can include learning to do all the following:
Self-soothing is actually something many children learn to provide for themselves as part of a natural developmental stage. It goes like this: A child begins to cry out for her mother. A responsive mother reacts quickly to her child’s cries. She picks up her baby and soothes her with a gentle voice and touch. She ascertains what it is that her baby needs, whether it is food, a diaper change or simply needs to be held and comforted. This is considered an empathetic response, which makes the baby feel safe and reassured. From experiences like this an infant learns in a deeply unconscious way that he or she can get what she needs, when she needs it, and that all will be okay. This unconscious experience of knowing that she will be responded to adequately and that everything will be taken care of translates into an ability to self-soothe.
Now let’s imagine another infant and another mother. This time the mother is distracted and impatient. Her baby’s helplessness and the immediacy of his needs triggers her own fears and fragile sense of self. Instead of responding calmly and confidently she acts anxious and impatient and she communicates (nonverbally) to her baby that things are not safe. Instead of experiencing the relief of a soothing response, the baby feels even more anxious. And the more distressed he becomes, the more distressed his mother becomes. Even food or a clean diaper cannot soothe him because he is too overwhelmed by the quality of his mother’s care.
If this mother consistently treats her child this way or in other less-than-nurturing ways (i.e. leaves the infant alone for long periods of time, reacts unpredictably toward the child—sometimes she comes into the room when he cries, other times she doesn’t) he is likely to grow into an adult who is unable to soothe himself effectively. He may feel off balance and distressed whenever he is in a situation that is challenging or uncertain. From these early experiences he will likely develop the expectation that things will not be okay, that he cannot get his needs met and that the world is an unsafe place. Of course, some children are inherently more sensitive and more vulnerable to non-empathetic responses.
You may have noticed that when life presents challenges you often experience an intensity of distress that feels excessive and out of control. Or you may experience a depth of hopelessness and futility that seems overwhelmingly powerful. If this is true for you it may be because your needs were not responded to in a soothing, nurturing way when you were an infant or toddler. It may also mean that as an infant or toddler you experienced a great deal of interpersonal chaos (such as often hearing your parents fighting) parental neglect, or rage. All these experiences would have created an intense anxiety inside of you as a child. This does not mean that you will never feel comfortable and confident about getting your needs met and never be able to self-soothe, however. In fact, the following information and exercises can help you begin to repair these deficits.
When you find yourself in a distressful situation, instead of allowing yourself to become overly fearful or to obsess anxiously over what could or could not happen, you can talk to yourself in a calm, nurturing way (you can do this silently, inside your head, or, if you are alone you can talk out loud). Think of the kindest words you could tell yourself—the words you most want to hear. Here are some examples of words of kindness created by some of my clients:
“You deserve to be loved.”
“You are a good person and you deserve to be happy.”
“It is understandable that you would have difficulty taking in love and other good things, but you’re getting better at it every day.”
Work on Creating a Nurturing Inner Voice
Begin by going inside and consciously creating an intimate connection with yourself. Many people don’t know how to do this. Others are afraid to do it because their inner life seems like a cold, uninviting place. You can start by simply asking yourself, “How do I feel?” as many times a day as you can think of it. You may need to prompt yourself to go inside by leaving yourself written reminders like, “check-in with yourself” or “how are you feeling?”
Self-Kindness Practice: Treating Yourself Tenderly
The next time your inner critic begins to attack you, check inside your body to see where you are feeling pain or discomfort. You might feel a tightness or heaviness in your throat, stomach, or chest (heart).
There is actual research that shows that the power of self-kindness is not just some feel-good idea that doesn’t really change things. For example, one important way that self-soothing works is by triggering the release of oxytocin—what researchers have dubbed the “hormone of love and bonding.” It has been shown that increased levels of oxytocin strongly increase feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity and connectedness and also facilitate the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. This is especially true when you self-soothe by touching your body in a gentle way since physical touch releases oxytocin, which has been shown to reduce fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress.
There are many ways to physically soothe yourself. Many of my clients find that softly stroking their cheek or gently stroking their arms is especially comforting. Find a way that works for you to soothe yourself through touch.
In Part II. I'll offer still more information and exercises around creating a Self-Kindness practice. In the meantime, I hope what I've offered so far will help you to begin to offer self-kindness to yourself, especially when you are especially stressed.