Be kind to yourself:

Treat Yourself As You Do Others (If You Believe in Being Kind)

By Margaret Chuong-Kim

As the parent of a toddler, I find that I am often calling out reminders during my son’s play with other children. I tell him, “Be gentle!” He hasn’t learned to talk yet and I don’t know how much he understands, but I am always on my toes to make sure that he plays nicely.

As I observe other parents at various play areas, I see that this is universal – we are constantly teaching our children to be nice to other people. “Be gentle!” can be heard all around the playground. Recalling my own childhood, I know my mother and father did the same thing. But when I look closer at my childhood I realize something interesting. While I was taught to be kind to others, I was not taught to be kind to myself.

My parents were strict in many ways and expected “perfect” behaviour. “Imperfect” behaviour was punished with tongue-lashings, and so I found myself on the receiving end of many scoldings. I was reprimanded for spilling my drink, skinning my knees, spraining my ankle, reading too little (educational text), reading too much (novels), not writing neatly enough, not knowing something I “should” have known (like how to read time at age 6, despite no one ever teaching me), telling a lie, telling the truth. You name it, I was probably in trouble over it. As a result I internalized a lot of my parents’ rebukes and really didn’t need them to scold me throughout my young adult life as I could do it to myself, all by myself. “You’re so stupid!” was a phrase I often told myself. Another one was, “Argh! You did it again!” As well as, “Maybe you just shouldn’t talk anymore.”

In speaking with many others I’ve come to believe that this lack of kindness toward oneself is common. You can forgive others for small mistakes, sometimes even large ones, but you often cannot forgive yourself. You scrutinize every aspect of your behaviour – what you said and the way you said it; what you did and how you did it – and kick yourself for saying or doing the wrong thing in the worst possible way. You run those mortifying scenarios over and over in your head. You ruminate.You worry about what you’ve said and what you’ve done. You get stressed out.

It seems we can usually give other people a break and the benefit of the doubt, but we cannot give these things to ourselves. Which makes sense – we’re just doing what we’ve learned. However, you are not doomed to bash yourself forever. This harmful habit can be unlearned; a kinder, healthier way of thinking can be learned. Here’s how:

Remind Yourself: You’re Only Human

Like it or not, you were created to be imperfect. You’re supposed to say and do the wrong things sometimes. Whoops – stuck your foot in your mouth again? Congratulations! You’ve just proved that you’re normal. Accidentally spilled wine on your boss at the annual company shindig? Hurray! You’re actually human! Funnily enough, we often forget this basic fact. So remind yourself, and do it a lot.

Address The Issue

Just because you’re human it doesn’t mean you can’t address what happened. When I was a student studying for my M.A. in counselling psychology, one of my professors told me, “If you think you’ve said something wrong to your client, and you haven’t addressed it before the session ends, bring it up in the next session. Don’t just leave it. Work it out.”

I have found that this piece of advice is effective both inside and outside of counselling sessions. These days, when I unintentionally say or do something that I think is hurtful or offensive, I will try to discuss it with the person in question. Once, when a single-mother friend of mine asked whether another friend of mine had any children, I breezily replied, “No, he’s not married.” It was only after I had gone home that I was chagrined to realize that I might have hurt her feelings by implying that only married people should have children. I quickly called her up and said, “Earlier today, I made such-and-such comment and I just realized how insensitive it was. I’m so sorry!”

Some people that I’ve done this with have been very gracious and have forgiven me immediately. Sometimes you have to make amends in order to be forgiven (for instance, if you really did spill wine on your boss you should probably offer to pay for dry cleaning). Most people, however, have told me that they didn’t even hear what I said or, if they heard the “offending” comment, they didn’t find it offensive. Once you learn that the other person has forgiven you, or didn’t take offense in the first place, you’ll find it much easier to stop beating yourself up.

Ask Yourself: How Significant Is This, Anyway?

When I was in seventh grade I was chosen out of the entire student body to read the morning announcements over the P.A. system. A distinguished honour, indeed. One day a friend of mine approached, reminded me that it was our mutual friend’s birthday, and asked if I’d be able to wish her a happy birthday after that morning’s announcements. Well, why not? I thought, and wished my friend a cheery, “Happy Birthday, Lynn!” over the loudspeaker.

Two words: big mistake.

I was told that I broke the rules and was unfair to all of the other students who celebrated a birthday that day. The esteemed position of morning-announcements-reader was stripped away from me. I was devastated and ashamed. I hoped I wouldn’t be expelled. I kicked myself relentlessly for years to come for doing such a horrid, hurtful, stupid thing.

Today, I’m not so hard on myself about that incident. At the time, it seemed like the most enormously wrong thing I could have done. Now, however, looking back, I don’t think it was that bad. It wasn’t the best choice I’ve ever made, but the world didn’t crumble. I’ve come to realize that that mistake didn’t hold as much significance as I’d once thought.

How significant are your mistakes? How big are they, really? Will what you did or what you said still matter 50 years from now?

Acknowledge Your Accomplishments

You have acknowledged all of your mistakes to the utmost. Yes, you screwed up here. Yes, that was a humdinger of a goof there. But what about the things you’ve done well? What about the times you’ve said the right words at just the right time?

This step is difficult to do because we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be humble. Nobody likes a braggart. Well, you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, but you can certainly put in as much effort into reminding yourself of what you’ve done well as you’ve put into reminding yourself of what you’ve done poorly.

This step does not come naturally to most people. It is very difficult to do. It’s necessary to practice often if you want to change your habitual ways of thinking.

Remember To Be Kind

Lastly, be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself as you forgive others. Remember to offer yourself some encouraging words. Treat yourself the way you’d want others to treat you – be gentle.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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