8 Ways to Be Kind to Yourself

Maximize well-being by aligning thought, action, and presence.

Posted May 21, 2018

Many of us struggle to treat ourselves with kindness. For some reason, we're often nicer to others than we are to ourselves. 

Good self-care isn't that different from effective parenting. As parents we want to balance clear expectations for our kids with an understanding that they're human and imperfect.

In the same way, looking out for ourselves means holding ourselves to standards that aren't too loose or too tight. This approach allows us to experience a balance of pleasure and mastery, the two types of reward that make life feel enjoyable and worthwhile. (See this related video in which Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, discusses these principles with his daughter, Dr. Judith S. Beck.) 

There are countless ways to support the well-being of the person whose body you inhabit. In my new book, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made SimpleI devote a chapter to eight research-proven practices of self-kindness. I've summarized these approaches below, including examples for how to enact them using the "Think Act Be" approach. As I discussed in my very first post, "Think Act Be" refers to the three streams of therapy that converged to form mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy:

  • Cognitive Therapy (Think) focuses on the thoughts that affect our feelings and behaviors.

  • Behavior Therapy (Act) emphasizes changes in our behavior that can improve conditions like depression and anxiety.

  • Mindfulness Practice (Be) trains our minds to focus on what's in front of us and to embrace the present.

Sleep Tight

One very obvious way to be kind to ourselves is to prioritize our sleep. Virtually every area of our life benefits from good sleep: mood, energy, concentration, relationships, work performance, driving ability, and more. However, we often push through sleepiness or counteract it with stimulants like caffeine, ignoring the costs of being sleep-deprived. 

Or we may spend plenty of time in bed, but consistently struggle with insomnia. Over time, we worsen our insomnia through attempts to get more sleep, like going to bed earlier or trying really hard to fall asleep. See this post about how to break the cycle: "How to Fix Broken Sleep." 

  • Think: Challenge unhelpful thoughts about sleep, like "Tomorrow's going to be a complete disaster if I don't get to sleep soon." 

  • Act: Set an alarm for when to start your bedtime routine, and go to bed and get up at about the same time every day. 

  • Be: Let go of efforts to force yourself to sleep, and accept that sleep will come when it comes.

Nourish Your Body and Brain

There is mounting evidence that our diet has a big effect on our mental and emotional well-being. While specific dietary recommendations vary, one common guideline is to eat minimally processed food, especially vegetables and fruits, nuts, fish, healthy fats like olive oil, as well as whole grains, and to limit or avoid refined sugar, fast food, and trans fats.

RitaE/Pixabay
Source: RitaE/Pixabay

These recommendations are similar to the "Mediterranean-style" diet, which has been linked to improvements in anxiety and depression. For an overview of healthy eating, visit the Mayo Clinic's Healthy Lifestyle website. 

  • Think: Plan your meals in advance, so you're more likely to eat healthy foods.

  • Act: Cook a new recipe that incorporates some of your favorite foods. 

  • Be: Practice mindful eating to bring greater enjoyment to your food and to make it less likely you'll overeat (a free guide to mindful eating is available through this website). 

Move Your Body

Physical exercise has positive effects not just on our bodies, but also on our minds and moods — and for good reasons. Consistent exercise leads to better sleep, the release of natural "feel-good" chemicals (endorphins), a sense of accomplishment, increased blood flow to the brain, social contact with others who are exercising, and more. 

  • Think: Consider enjoyable ways to use your body that don't even feel like "exercise."

  • Act: Do a new workout that requires your body to adjust to unfamiliar ways of moving.

  • Be: Pay attention to your breathing as you move your body. Yoga practice explicitly directs our attention to the breath through the poses.

Manage Stress

We're built to handle short-term stress pretty well — our fight-or-flight response kicks in, we rise to the challenge, and then our parasympathetic nervous system calms us down. But when stress is chronic, our bodies and brains become worn down, leading to impaired immune function, digestive and cardiac problems, and psychological illnesses. Plus, it's just not enjoyable to live in a constant state of high-alert. We'll never eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn to manage it more effectively. 

  • Think: Relax rigid and unrealistic standards for yourself, like "I have to finish this project today." 

  • Act: Schedule short breaks throughout your day in which you deliberately let go of unnecessary tension.

  • Be: Develop curiosity about your relationship with stress, like noticing the quality of your thoughts and how your body reacts when you're feeling pressure. 

Engage With the Real World

As the Internet and social media permeate our lives, a growing number of studies shows the negative effects on our well-being. For example, heavy Facebook use is linked to less happiness over time, and more technology in the bedroom is associated with worse sleep. 

Technology can be highly addicting, so it's easy to fall into a pattern of overuse. As a result we're more prone to burnout, and our relationships can suffer. Consider whether it may be a good idea to increase the time you spend immersed in real life instead. 

  • Think: Question assumptions you might have about how often you have to check email or social media.

  • Act: Designate technology-free zones, like mealtime, in which you put away your phone and other screens.

  • Be: Give your attention fully to the next conversation you have, really paying attention to the person you're talking to. 

JebBuchman/Pixabay
Source: JebBuchman/Pixabay

Spend Time Outside

Being in nature is good for our well-being. Green landscapes are not only beautiful, but also engage our parasympathetic nervous systems, helping to lower our stress levels. We're also less prone to unhealthy rumination when we're outdoors. 

  • Think: Notice the effect that being outside has on your thoughts — their valence, content, etc. 

  • Act: Plan a family outing that involves being outdoors — ideally with time away from technology.

  • Be: Gaze up and notice the particular look and feel of the sky today. 

Serve Others

Helping others is actually self-serving. Indeed, making a point to help others leads to improvements in anxiety and depression. Serving others can distract us from our own distress and can also provide a sense of purpose.

  • Think: Look for ways in which your partner or other loved one could use a little help. 

  • Act: Do something nice and unexpected for another person, like helping a neighbor with yard work or preparing a meal for someone. 

  • Be: Respond with compassion rather than judgment when a loved one makes a mistake. 

Give Thanks

It's all too easy to focus on what's wrong in our lives and to ignore what is going well. We often find more joy than we knew was available to us when we notice and appreciate the good in our lives. 

  • Think: Write down things to be grateful for that you might take for granted, because they're always there, like air, food, people who care about you, a bed, etc. 

  • Act: Write a letter of appreciation to someone who helped you through a tough time in your life. 

  • Be: Practice a gratitude meditation or do a gratitude-focused yoga series (like this one: Grounding into Gratitude). 

For any category that resonates with you, choose from the options listed or come up with your own way to practice the principle. Many activities check multiple boxes: Going for a hike, for example, can involve physical exercise, stress management, time in nature, time away from screens, and even gratitude for the experience. 

mimagephotography/Shutterstock
Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

Finally, start as gradually as you need to, keeping in mind that you don't have to work on all eight areas at once, which could be overwhelming. Sometimes it's an act of kindness just to get dressed for the day, or take a shower, or walk around the block one time. Starting where we are is fundamental to treating ourselves with compassion.

References

Gillihan, Seth J. (2018). Cognitive behavioral therapy made simple. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.