5 MIN READ
By Poorna Bell
The default understanding of kindness is an act that you perform for another person—a gesture that’s often done quietly, without the expectation of thanks or reward. This means it’s hard to talk about your own acts of kindness without it sounding like a humblebrag. But for me, being kind to others is the easy part. It’s easy to see someone else’s need, whether it’s the person suffering in the cold without a winter coat, or someone who just needs solace or reassurance that everything will be okay (even if you don’t know that it will).
But kindness is a 360-degree behaviour—it isn’t just something we project or do outwardly, it’s also about how we treat ourselves. And when it comes to thinking about how kind I am to myself, I know that in the past, I’ve fallen short of where I should be. Kindness, for instance, is about the consideration of others, and there have been plenty of times when I haven’t considered myself. I haven’t thought about how much sleep I needed, whether I was over-committing to yet another social event when all I wanted to do was rest. And of course, the internal monologue of my inner critic.
We all have one, and this is the voice that tears you down piece by piece. It criticises whether you are clever enough, funny enough. It tells you that you aren’t working hard enough, that people will think you’re lazy. When you’ve achieved something, it likes to trick you into believing that you didn’t really earn it.
This voice is so fused into our bones, that sometimes we don’t even notice it’s there. It takes active work to root it out, and when you get into the pattern of being kind to yourself, you soon realise that it isn’t selfish, but in fact, one of the most vital things you can do.
A couple of months ago, I was in a situation where I had upset somebody. It started off a spiral of negative thoughts—from thinking I was the world’s worst person to believing that I was worthless and didn’t deserve friends. Then I realised that the person I was most unkind to was myself; I had to become actively aware of this so that I could start to change my behaviour.
Unknowingly, I had already started the work towards this a few years ago. I had previously thought it was normal to work all hours, and to frequently feel overwhelmed by it. Or to have weeks upon weeks of my social calendar booked out. But I realised that feeling permanently on the edge of burnout wasn’t normal, nor was it sustainable. I would have to make some changes.
The reason why I say kindness to yourself isn’t selfish, but can be some of the hardest work, is that a big part of it is setting boundaries and managing your time in a way that puts your needs and health first. If you are an altruistic person, or are used to looking after other people, it can feel as if your needs shouldn’t be prioritised. But I’ve experienced time and again, how if I am not kind to myself, I’m operating from a place that is tired and empty. And then, it makes me the least kind to others.
For me, that includes saying no to social events even if I really want to go to them. It means checking in with how I’m feeling physically and mentally and seeing what I need in that moment. Do I need more sleep? A walk in the park? Some time off work? As a freelancer, I am notoriously bad at giving myself days off, but it’s something I’ve had to mark in a calendar so that I catch it before it gets on top of me. I also journal my thoughts and feelings, and very often that will surface things I’ve hidden deep down. But also, I write the achievements I’m proud of in a book—it’s like a kindness to my future self, for when I doubt what I have done, and what I can do. If I feel overwhelmed, I give myself breaks off my phone by turning off my notifications, and telling a handful of loved ones ahead of time that if they need to contact me in an emergency, then to just call.
All of this means that I’m then in the best position to be kind to other people, and to give with an open and full heart. If taking the time for myself allows me to be able to do that, then it is the furthest thing away from being selfish, don’t you think?