Being gentle with myself was a pretty revolutionary concept for me.
I spent my teen years mentally berating myself for every tiny mistake, every shortcoming, and every faux pas. This barrage of criticism and disparagement only perpetuated the unhealthy behaviors I had developed, and did a good job of keeping my self-esteem hovering in the negative digits.
I think it was Geneen Roth who first introduced me to the concept of treating myself with gentleness and respect. I scoffed at first–I was never a believer in positive self-talk and bathroom-mirror-affirmations. But I knew I had to change, and that the change needed to start at the root–in the battleground of my mind.
So I began talking to myself differently. Rather than slamming myself with criticism after I made a mistake, I talked to myself like I would a child–reminding myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that I could try again. And this silly, hokey stuff actually began to work. Calling a ceasefire allowed me some space to breathe, some space to make mistakes and learn from them and move on. For the first time, I was actually able to make some changes and stick with them.
I know many women (and men) aren’t in the habit of treating themselves with kindness. So here are my top 3 tips for learning to be gentle with yourself.
1. Practice “it’s just okay”.
This is something my best friend taught me. When I call her and tell her that I’m screwing everything up and that I let my kids watch two hours of TV this morning and didn’t get anything done and haven’t mopped my floor in weeks and I just inhaled seven doughnuts without even blinking, she says, “Heather, everything is okay. You are okay. So you let your kids watch six episodes of Jake and the Neverland Pirates? They’re fine. So you ate a bunch of doughnuts? It’s not a big deal. Everything is just okay.”
And it really is. Most things, even the big things, are not the end of the world. “It’s just okay” takes the pressure off. Things don’t have to be good or bad. They can just be okay. And that is such a relief.
So the next time you mess up and your inner critic wants to jump in and yell at you, remind yourself that it is what it is. Life goes on. And it’s just okay.
2. Acknowledge your victories.
So maybe you screwed up at work or failed at your “exercise every day” New Years Resolution or yelled at your kids or forgot your spouse’s birthday. Guess what? You got up this morning. You are breathing in and out. Look at you, living! You’re a genius.
I’m kidding. But only a little. Focusing on how everything is going wrong will likely do nothing but send you into a downward spiral. In order to focus on the positive and keep yourself motivated, you have to remind yourself of what you are doing right. Even the little things. And even if it feels silly.
The past few days were…not good. I was going through some personal stuff and not handling it very well. I slacked off a lot in the parenting department, didn’t want to cook, haven’t really done much cleaning, and coped with my emotions using my old standby–food. I felt like everything was sort of falling apart and I didn’t have the energy to gather it all up and fix it.
When I started to notice myself listing everything I was doing wrong, and thinking about all the things I “should” and “shouldn’t” be doing, I intervened. I reminded myself that I had played play dough with the boys the other day, and that I folded three loads of laundry today. I forced myself to acknowledge that even though most of our meals had consisted of rice and beans lately, at least I cooked something–and it was cheap and healthy! Points all around.
For me, thinking about my daily “victories” forces me to acknowledge that I am, in fact, a decent human being who makes good choices sometimes. I am capable of things. It also helps protect me from extremist thinking, which I am prone to. Everything is not falling apart–I went to the grocery store and then cooked dinner for four people, like a freaking adult!
Find your victories, even the smallest ones, and make them take precedence over your failures. Some days, just getting out of bed will be a victory. And that’s okay. It counts.
3. Retrain your mental voice to speak to you as if you were a child (and I mean gently, not patronizingly).
I am not kidding about this. It works.
When I used to binge, I would think things like, “Ugh, I cannot believe I ate all that food. I feel so sick. I feel disgusting. Why don’t I have any willpower? Why am I so out of control? I’m so weak, I’m so stupid. I am disgusting. I’m not going to eat any food tomorrow. Water is all I deserve after eating like that.”
Let me just tell you that it did not help.
Now, when I binge or overeat, I say to myself, “Hm. I wish I hadn’t eaten that much, I don’t like feeling sick. It’s okay, though. I know I’ll feel better and I can try again tomorrow.” And then I move on. No dwelling on it, no wallowing in misery.
I don’t do this as much anymore, but when I first starting learning about intuitive eating I practiced gentle self-talk that would go something like this: “Hey, body. I’m really sorry for making you feel sick again. I haven’t been treating you very well. Thank you for always being strong and for taking care of me. I promise I will try to take better care of you.” Sometimes I would even talk to myself out loud (if I was alone, obviously), check in with myself, see how I was feeling and what was going on.
Yes, I’m serious. Just try it.
The key here is kindness, gentleness. Treating yourself with the love and respect you deserve.
And remember that progress isn’t linear. We all wish it was, but it just isn’t. There will be a lot of ups and downs no matter what your goal is–the important thing is not to get caught up in the peaks and valleys, but to look at the overall trend. Most of the time, by taking a step back you’ll see that you are, in fact, making progress. It’s just hard to see that when you’re in the trenches.
Is your inner voice supportive or destructive? Give yourself a little mental hug today, loves.