You’re going through a difficult time.
You got into a big fight with a friend, and you’re not sure if your relationship can survive it.
You’re grieving a devastating loss.
You’re overwhelmed with your job.
You’re overwhelmed with the daily demands of life. It feels like you’re constantly behind.
You got a demotion at work or a major pay cut.
Or you’re simply feeling blah. Which happens since life is a series of ups and downs.
For most of us, when we’re feeling awful, our first instinct isn’t self-compassion. It’s the exact opposite.
Instead we bash ourselves. We bash ourselves for our inability to push through. We bash ourselves for being tired, for needing to slow down. We bash ourselves for being sad or angry or anxious or feeling any other emotion we deem inconvenient and wrong.
According to New York City psychologist Snehal Kumar, Ph.D, we tend to be self-critical during tough times for several reasons. For one, self-criticism might’ve worked in the past in producing change, “even if it damaged us.”
We might think we don’t deserve kindness during a difficult time, she said, especially if we blame the situation on ourselves.
“Some of us think kindness is the same thing as indulgence and are afraid that we will stop doing what we need to do if we give ourselves kindness.”
We also tend to develop “tunnel vision,” during a tough time, said Kumar, who specializes in burnout recovery, diversity-related stress, mindfulness, and mental wellness. We “become hyper-focused on specific aspects of our experience and ignore or even forget other experiences. As a result, when times are tough, we are less in touch with our full story, which makes it more difficult to empathize with ourselves.”
In short, it makes sense that self-compassion doesn’t come naturally to you. However, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck in a web of self-criticism, negativity, and overwhelm.
Below, Kumar shared five nourishing ways we can practice kindness. Of course, these suggestions might differ depending on your specific situation, so make sure to amend them as you need.
- Care for your physical health. This is especially critical, Kumar said, because “many of us experience stress in our bodies.” She shared these examples: If you’re drinking more coffee than usual, can you make sure you’re drinking more water, too? If you can’t make your weekly dance class, can you take a short walk? If you can’t cook or grab takeout, can you ask a few friends to drop off meals?
- Avoid being critical about being critical. Yes, it can turn into a vicious cycle. You try to practice self-compassion, but can’t seem to be kind. So you get angry and frustrated with yourself for being angry and frustrated with yourself. “In these moments, it can be helpful to acknowledge that pattern and shift focus on calming and soothing oneself,” Kumar said. “The actual strategies to calm oneself will be different but what remains the same is the permission to receive comfort.” For instance, you might take a walk, prepare a simple snack, take a 2-hour break from your phone and email, sit in a comfortable chair, listen to relaxing music, call a friend, draw, or practice deep breathing, she said.
- Be intentional about what you let into your life. Kumar suggested identifying the “things that are helping you digest and heal” and “the experiences that might be making you feel worse.” For instance, is scrolling social media helping? Are certain friends more helpful during tough times than others? “Set those boundaries kindly.”
- Embrace gratitude. Take a few minutes every day to acknowledge what you are doing, rather than focusing on what you’re not, Kumar said. If you’d like, jot this down in a small notebook.
- Find a way to honor your needs. When we’re struggling, it’s hard to see that we can make small, significant changes even inside our complicated situations. Kumar shared an example of realistic ways different individuals who are exhausted and overwhelmed can still honor their needs: One person leaves work 15 to 30 minutes earlier (because their work culture allows for it). Another person in a more time-intensive job takes micro breaks, such as taking a short walk to the kitchen and taking five deep breaths every 30 minutes. A third person takes the last 15 minutes of their workday to plan for the next day and validate today’s efforts. What tiny ways can you honor your needs throughout the day given the realistic constraints?
When we’re going through a difficult time, self-compassion is the best approach we can take. It’s the best way we can care for ourselves and it’s the best way we can heal.
Remember that self-compassion can be small. And remember that self-compassion includes reaching out for support, which can include family, friends, and a therapist.
And remember you don’t have to be think you deserve self-compassion in order to provide it and receive it. You can simply start with the smallest gestures. Today.