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How to be kind to yourself (without going to a day spa)

How to be kind to yourself (without going to a day spa)
Self-soothing touch reduces cortisol responses to psychosocial stress. (Illustration: AI-generated)

A one-off trip to a day spa is unlikely to transform your mental health. But these expert tips might help you cut yourself some slack.

“I have to be hard on myself,” Sarah told me in a recent telehealth psychology session. “I would never reach my potential if I was kind and let myself off the hook.”

I could empathise with this fear of self-compassion from clients such as Sarah (not her real name). From a young age, we are taught to be kind to others, but self-kindness is never mentioned.

Instead, we are taught success hinges on self-sacrifice. And we need a healthy inner critic to bully us forward into becoming increasingly better versions of ourselves. But research shows there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between self-compassion and success.

Self-compassion can help you reach your potential while supporting you to face the inevitable stumbles and setbacks along the way.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion has three key ingredients.

1. Self-kindness

This involves treating yourself with the same kindness you would extend towards a good friend – via your thoughts, feelings and actions – especially during life’s difficult moments.

For instance, if you find yourself fixating on a minor mistake you made at work, self-kindness might involve taking a ten-minute walk to shift focus, and reminding yourself it is OK to make mistakes sometimes, before moving on with your day.

2. Mindfulness

In this context, mindfulness involves being aware of your own experience of stress or suffering, rather than repressing or avoiding your feelings, or over-identifying with them.

Basically, you must see your stress with a clear (mindful) perspective before you can respond with kindness. If we avoid or are consumed by our suffering, we lose perspective.

3. Common humanity

Common humanity involves recognising our own experience of suffering as something that unites us as being human.

For instance, a sleep-deprived parent waking up (for the fourth time) to feed their newborn might choose to think about all the other parents around the world doing exactly the same thing – as opposed to feeling isolated and alone.

It’s not about day spas, or booking a manicure

When Sarah voiced her fear that self-compassion would prevent her success, I explained that self-compassion is distinct from self-indulgence.

“So is self-compassion just about booking in more mani/pedis?” Sarah asked.

Not really, I explained. A one-off trip to a day spa is unlikely to transform your mental health. Instead, self-compassion is a flexible psychological resilience factor that shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s associated with a suite of benefits to our wellbeingrelationships and health.

What does the science say?

Over the past 20 years, we’ve learned self-compassionate people enjoy a wide range of benefits. They tend to be happier and have fewer psychological symptoms of distress. Those high on self-compassion persevere following a failure. They say they are more motivated to overcome a personal weakness than those low on self-compassion, who are more likely to give up.

So rather than feeling trapped by your inadequacies, self-compassion encourages a growth mindset, helping you reach your potential. However, self-compassion is not a panacea. It will not change your life circumstances or somehow make life “easy”. It is based on the premise that life is hard, and provides practical tools to cope.

It’s a factor in healthy ageing

I research menopause and healthy ageing and am especially interested in the value of self-compassion through menopause and in the second half of life.

Because self-compassion becomes important during life’s challenges, it can help people navigate physical symptoms (for instance, menopausal hot flushes), life transitions such as divorce, and promote healthy ageing. I’ve also teamed up with researchers at Autism Spectrum Australia to explore self-compassion in autistic adults. We found autistic adults report significantly lower levels of self-compassion than neurotypical adults. So we developed an online self-compassion training program for this at-risk population.

Three tips for self-compassion

You can learn self-compassion with these three exercises.

1. What would you say to a friend?

Think back to the last time you made a mistake. What did you say to yourself?

If you notice you’re treating yourself more like an enemy than a friend, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, try to think about what you might tell a friend, and direct that same friendly language towards yourself.

2. Harness the power of touch

Soothing human touch activates the parasympathetic “relaxation” branch of our nervous system and counteracts the fight or flight response. Specifically, self-soothing touch (for instance, placing both hands on your heart, stroking your forearm, or giving yourself a hug) reduces cortisol responses to psychosocial stress.

3. What do I need right now?

Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out exactly what self-compassion looks like in a given moment. The question “what do I need right now” helps clarify your true needs.

For example, when I was 37 weeks pregnant, I woke up bolt awake one morning at 3am. Rather than beating myself up about it, or fretting about not getting enough sleep, I gently placed my hands on my heart and took a few deep breaths. By asking myself “what do I need right now?” it became clear that listening to a gentle podcast/meditation fitted the bill (even though I wanted to addictively scroll my phone). DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. Lydia Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Melbourne.

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