Why kindness isn’t a cop out
I think and talk a lot about kindness - self-kindness and self-compassion in particular. In my blurb about this blog I started 2 years ago, I say I’m on a journey towards self-compassion. Though kindness and self-compassion aren’t necessarily the same thing (google defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate” and Dr Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as treating yourself with the same kindness, concern and support you’d show to a good friend*), the two concepts do go hand-in-hand.
Throughout our lives, we are given messages that it is good to be kind to one another. We learn to share our toys; we learn that being cruel, the opposite of kind, is not tolerated. Aesop’s fable about the north wind and the sun – the one where the two decide who is stronger by removing a traveller’s coat (spoiler alert: it’s the sun) – teaches us that gentle persuasion works better than forceful bluster. Even now, Ellen DeGeneres ends her shows with, “Be kind to one another” and stands by that phrase as people argue about how she sat next to George W Bush at a football game and laughed with him. So, for the most part, kindness equals good.
But where and from whom do we learn to be kind to ourselves? I’m not sure where or when I stumbled on to this idea initially, but I know that it well and truly entered my consciousness when I read Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This book was really my first foray into mindfulness and it came complete with an 8-track cd of guided meditations. One of the meditations, the one that turned out to be my favourite, was called “Befriending.” In that mindfulness meditation, you start by wishing yourself safety, freedom from suffering, health and happiness and ease of being. You then go on to wish that for various others. I do think it’s significant that you start with yourself. There was something similar in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I did and, lo and behold, when I was doing my yoga teacher training, we learned what was called a ‘tonglen’ meditation, something quite similar to these other mindfulness meditations, but with an aspect of taking and giving (taking suffering/pain; giving love/peace). It’s not until I look back at all these experiences and notice how drawn I was to these compassion-focused practices that it strikes me as something that must have been new to me.
I also find it to be somewhat controversial when I ask others to consider self-kindness or self–compassion. After the quizzical looks I get, the questions start coming. By far the most common question I get about being kind to yourself is, “Isn’t that a cop out?” although there are others: “If I treat myself with kindness or compassion, isn’t that just me making excuses for bad behaviour – or behaviour that I want to change?” “Isn’t that just me being lazy?” “Am I not just absolving myself of responsibility for my behaviour if I’m being kind to myself?” Before I could definitively say “No!” to any of these questions, I felt a need to consider them a little bit more carefully. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Kindness is important. Some suggest that we are biologically wired to prefer kindness. Kindness has been found to be the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in marriages, it’s good for your health, it keeps you connected to others as it elicits warmth and it signals an ability to lead. It may even help you live longer. So if it’s that good for us to be kind to others, surely it’s as good – if not better – to be kind to ourselves too?
Turns out it is. Dr. Kristen Neff*, who is one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, has done lots of research about this. She’s found that self-compassionate people are motivated to learn and grow for themselves, rather than doing it to gain approval from others. Being compassionate towards oneself seems to be linked to more stable feelings of self-worth, offers protection against social comparison, public self-consciousness, self-rumination, anger and closed-mindedness, and is associated with emotional intelligence and wisdom (source). Gretchen Rubin (of course!), in writing about creating or sticking to good habits, suggests that people who have self-compassion are better at sticking to good habits. She states that the assumption some people have that feeling guilt or shame about not sticking to a habit you’re trying to stick to will act as a safeguard against breaking a habit is not true. In fact, the opposite is true. “Guilt and shame about a bad habit,” she writes, “can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better – by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place.” Self-encouragement, or viewing a stumble as part of a habit formation process that takes time to get right, she says, is a greater safeguard than self-blame. And just in case you’re thinking that I didn’t look for information that didn’t confirm my belief that self-compassion is good for you, I will say that I saw one research study that found the psychological benefits of being kind to others were greater than the psychological benefits of being kind to oneself. But even that doesn’t negate the fact that there is benefit in being kind to ourselves.
For me, that's enough evidence to conclude that being kind to yourself is not a cop-out. But if you’re still not convinced, ask yourself a couple of questions. First, if you’ve done something that you think you should beat yourself up for, ask yourself if you would berate a good friend who has done the same thing. Whether you're beating yourself up for hanging about the house all day in pyjamas, eating that second piece of cake or making a mistake – would you berate your nearest and dearest for doing the same thing? If your answer is no – or ‘of course not!’ (and I’ve found it usually is) - then ask yourself this: why are YOU less deserving of your kindness than those that you love? How does that compute?
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t compute – and you know it. You are just as deserving of kindness as anyone else in your life. And it is ok to show yourself some kindness. In fact, it’ll probably be one of the best things you can do for yourself.
*(For more on Kristen Neff’s definition of self-compassion or to learn about the 3 elements of self-compassion and other aspects of Dr Neff's work, click here: https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/)