The Kindness Habit (Part 1)

The Kindness Habit

Your thighs look huge, and everyone is looking at them.

You have no willpower, your hopeless, you look stupid in the gym, you haven’t a clue, and everyone is staring at your sweat patches!

These are the type of stories we tell ourselves, often daily.

Why are we so cruel?

Why do we constantly feel like everyone is judging us? Criticising us?

And, importantly, why do we relentlessly criticise ourselves?

It needs to stop, now!

Not only does this type of self-criticism have a negative effect on your own self esteem, it also harmfully impacts your ability to engage with your healthy habits and ultimately reach your goals.

In this 3 part miniseries on developing a Kindness Habit I will be discussing:

  • Why being kind to yourself, and developing self-compassion may be one of the most important healthy habits for you to cultivate this year.
  • The key steps you can take to do this.

What is self-compassion? And why is it important?

Self-compassion is the practice of not avoiding painful thoughts or experiences but instead turning inwards and embracing these experiences, showing them kindness.

If we are compassionate towards someone else we are aware of their suffering and we tend to express feelings of kindness towards them.

Yet we tend not to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness.

Harsh self-judgement makes us feel isolated and alone.

It makes us feel like we are the only one suffering, being judged, criticised.  

When it comes to our habits, we tend to come down on ourselves most harshly when we stray from our goals, give into temptation, and make a mistake. Then we feel like a failure. That we will never get it right, that we will never reach our goals.

Additionally, not only do we berate ourselves but we also often believe that others are thinking the same things about us too.

However, as Dr. Kirsten Neff a leading compassion researcher tells us;  

“Mistakes should be seen as a shared part of humanity. That we are all imperfect and to expect perfection in ourselves or others is unfair. By understanding that this is part of shared human experience we ease our suffering. It’s not about avoiding suffering but reacting to it in a way that helps you grow, to build positive momentum. It helps you develop the emotional resilience to deal with pain and suffering in a constructive manner, soothing negative emotion and thus helping it dissipate.”

The truth is that the research demonstrates that we persistently overestimate the negative thoughts we think people think about us, and how often they think negatively about us.

The worst part about this is that it often makes us judge ourselves far more harshly than we should. A consequence of this being, that we end up being more withdrawn and less joyful in our lives.

It’s our self judgement that often drives our own insecurities

In one significant study, psychologists used theatrical make up to create an ugly scar on participant's faces before they were to interact face to face with a stranger. The stranger had been trained by the researchers to act in a neutral, non judgmental way to the participants. 

After they had their conversations with the stranger, whilst aware they had the scar on their faces, the participants were asked about how the stranger related to them. The participants reported that the stranger was staring at them or avoiding making eye contact with them. They said they made them feel self-conscious and they felt down for how the stranger treated them.

Once back in the lab the participants were told that the makeup artists had removed the scar before they had the conversation with the stranger.

Therefore there was no scar on their faces during the conversation!!

Ultimately, the participants had created their own reality, their experiences reflected what they believed about their looks, not the objective facts about the situation. 

This demonstrates a powerful truth. We are the most influential dictators of our negative body image emotions. It’s our own ways of judging and thinking about our looks that drives our insecurities.

(As cited in Tribole and Resch, 2017)

So how do you break free of this cycle and learn to stop judging yourself?

To expect perfection in yourself is unrealistic.

We need to let go of this mindset, and instead come from a place of understanding, that we know we will make mistakes along the way, but those mistakes are opportunities to learn, to grow.

When negative events or mistakes happen, positive self-talk (which is exactly what it says on the tin – talking to yourself in a positive, friendly, compassionate manner and NOT having negative or judgemental thoughts about yourself) seeks to bring the positive out of the negative.

Ultimately fostering positive thoughts can help you gain positive momentum, and keep moving in the right direction - towards your goals.

How do you develop a positive self-talk habit?

Across this 3 part miniseries on developing a kindness habit I will be sharing evidence based ways in which to develop a more positive relationship with yourself. Each post I will suggest a brief exercise drawn from a number of fields including  ACT therapy, CBT and positive psychology. Not everything works for everyone, so I do encourage you to try these out and see which one is right for you.

Ultimately developing a self-kindness habit is just like developing any other healthy habit, it requires persistence and consistency at the start. However, through repetition, in time it can become automatic.

Develop a positive truth list

Yes it may sound a bit woo woo or fluffy but if you have negative or self-critical thoughts and they are affecting how you feel on a daily basis. Then it’s time to pause, take a moment, and look for ways in which to address the impact these thoughts are having on your mood, your choices and ultimately, your relationship with yourself.

The below is an exercise that you may want to do on your own, somewhere quiet with a pen and paper. I suggest taking at least 10 minutes to do this, however you can take as little or as long as you have available to you, it will still be worthwhile. You may even want to do this exercise throughout the week so you can become aware of any of patterns of negative thoughts and start to frame them in a more positive light.

Here is what you do:

  • Draw out two columns.
  • In the one on the left write down some of the negative self-talk you use with yourself on a daily basis.
  • Be specific, whenever possible, and include anyone you remember who contributed to that message. 
  • Now stop and take a minute to counter each of these thoughts with a positive truth in your life. For every negative thought there is an equal and opposing positive thought. It may be difficult to find these initially but they do exist so don’t give up until you find them.
  • Write a positive truth in the column next to the negative belief. For example you may have a negative message that replays in your head such as "I’ll never be able to resist temptation" or "I will never be able to get to a weight that I am happy with".
  • What would be a positive truth for this? For example; "I have resisted many temptations in the past and am growing my skills to get better at resisting temptation in the future." "I am happy and healthy and am making steps each day to develop healthy habits that last." 
  • You can choose to overwrite the automatic negative self talk message with a positive one, such as “I choose to accept and grow from my mistake” or “As I learn from my mistakes, I am becoming a better person.”
  • Whatever your responses are they need to be something that are completely true for you.

This may be difficult to start with and you may find you will need to brainstorm some positive thoughts but this exercise alone is vital to retrain the brain towards a more positive thought process. 

This is a really helpful rhetoric to develop for when you give into temptation or feel you have strayed from your goals, as you will do, and should expect to, as you are human! 

Isn’t creating positive self-talk like this just another form of self-deception?

Developing self-compassion is not about looking at the world with rose tinted glasses on. Rather it’s about understanding that being judgemental or harsh on yourself is ineffective at helping you reach your healthy habit goals faster. Therefore creating a more positive monologue would be more beneficial and motivating.

The thing to keep in mind is that positive self-talk is not a form of deception. As positive psychologist Gregory L. Jantz explains:

“Positive self talk is not mentally looking at circumstances with eyes that see only what you want to see. Rather, positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. To expect no difficulties in life, whether through your own actions or sheer circumstances, is also unrealistic. The practice of positive self-talk is often the process that allows you to discover the obscured optimism, hope, and joy in any given situation.”

How does this help you develop healthy habits that last?

There is a common belief that being kind to yourself undermines motivation and encourages overindulgence. We believe that our self-criticism is what keeps us on track. Without that nagging voice telling us we are not good enough, slim enough, trying hard enough, we would just end up bingeing on Netflix, in our PJs, eating pizza all day!

This simply isn’t true.

Research shows that self-compassion actually supports and enhances your motivation to continue with your goals.

In fact, it has been found that those who cultivate a self-compassion habit;

  • Adopt growth/process focused goals and less likely to adopt performance based goals
  • Are less likely to procrastinate towards their goals  
  • Have less fear of failing, and more motivation to try again after failure
  • Are more successful at sticking to healthy eating plans
  • Are more intrinsically motivated to exercise

On the whole being more self-compassionate has been associated with improved wellbeing, increased happiness and a greater initiative to make changes in your life.

(As cited in Neff, K. D. & Davidson, O. (2016). Self-compassion: Embracing suffering with kindness. In I. Ivtzan & T. Lomas (Eds.), Mindfulness in Positive Psychology (pp. 37-50). Rutledge.)

This is why being kind to yourself may be one of the most important healthy habits to cultivate.

So it’s time to stop judging yourself and feeling like everyone else is judging you too.

Developing positive truths and thoughts about yourself helps you develop a different mindset that breaks this cycle, you learn to change your experiences and these experiences breed positive momentum in helping you achieve what is most important to you in life. 

The key thing to remember is that repetition is vital to making sure your positive truths shine brighter and outweigh any negative criticism. This will take time and practice but the reward is huge.

Go forth and be kind to yourself! 

Published on 23rd Apr 2018 at 06:19 by Dr. Heather McKee

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Dr. Heather McKee is registered in Ireland Reg. No. 687397 with the registered address at 314 Mother Teresa House, Loreto Abby, Rathfarnham, D14 NR20, Co. Dublin, Ireland

This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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