How to practice self-kindness

Girl choosing healthy lifestyle, practicing yoga near sport equipment, vegetables
image: iStock / Getty

It’s the bit we all forget about.

But it matters … quite a lot!

For most of us, kindness conjures up ideas of what we can do for someone. The immediate thought is other-focused. And other-focused feels right.

The thought of self-kindness, self-focus, on the other hand, feels wrong for most people. It feels selfish. We feel guilty for even indulging in the idea.

Why is this?

There’s a few reasons.

I grew up on a council estate in a village that was economically depressed at the time. But as is common with places like this, friends and neighbours pulled together to help each other. However, if someone was seen to be getting on, or indulging in some form of treating themselves, some people would talk about them with terms such as, “If she was chocolate, she would eat herself!” or “Who does she think she is?” or “She loves herself!” 

“He thinks he’s better than everyone else” was another one. It was the one that stuck, the hardest to shake off.

There was a kindship around hardship. If you were struggling, you were the same as everyone else. Kindness was exclusively reserved for helping others. And people in my village did it well.

So even if you felt you were getting on, it was wise to play small.

The trouble is, when you keep talking yourself down, you eventually start to believe the things you say about yourself.

I intuitively resisted this and often talked up my achievements. I had a very good academic record and was athletically inclined. In my adolescent and teenage mind, I simply celebrated my achievements. For me, sharing my successes with others felt exactly that, that I was sharing. We were all kin of sorts. A win for one is a win for all. That’s how I celebrated the successes of others. This sort of self-expression is natural. It’s a form of intuitive self-kindness. It never occurred to me at first that others wouldn’t see it the same way.

I was labelled a ‘big head’ and was brought down to size through years of bullying at school. In time, one learns to equate success and feeling good about one’s self with pain shortly afterwards.

It affected my confidence and self-esteem for years afterwards. 

This was my experience. It’s not the same for everyone as we each have a different context that we grew up in.

Others develop ideas around the seeming wrongness of self-kindness in other ways.

Many learn from a young age that it’s selfish to put yourself first.

And that’s part of the problem – the belief that putting yourself first is exclusively what self-kindness is.

The problem is in the way we think about it. We think it means to put yourself selfishly ahead of others as if to say, ‘Me first! I’m the most important person here’, sort of thing. We associate it with self-indulgence while others are struggling.

If we understood it differently, we wouldn’t have quite as many hang-ups about self-kindness.

Because it’s not really what self-kindness is.

There are times, though, when self-kindness does mean putting yourself first, especially if it’s in support of your mental or physical health. But it’s not a selfish act. It’s simply a recognition of your needs and acting upon them. It’s a necessity rather than an indulgence.

Self-kindness can take many forms. Sometimes it’s about taking time for yourself. Oher times it can be doing something relaxing. Sometimes it can be buying something for yourself. Some people like to take a warm bath, a walk in nature, go see a movie, or something else that’s meaningful or helps them feel good.

Time is often a challenge for me so it can take a self-kindness focus. I find myself sometimes having too many deadlines and pieces of work that cluster together, so self-kindness sometimes takes the form of me taking time for myself.

I even write it in my diary – “Meeting with Self.” I give that entry the same priority as I would a meeting with anyone else. It escalates it to the level of something that’s important. It helps highlight the fact I’m doing an act of self-kindness that supports my mental health and so solidifies the importance to myself of my own health.

If I don’t do this, what might the consequences be? Well, for many, the consequences of not practicing self-kindness are stress, burnout, anxiety.

What else is self-kindness? Much of the time it’s just about doing what you need to do to support your mental health. But it can also be in finding things that are meaningful for you and doing them on purpose.

Let me share an example to make the point. 

I love to cook.

Now, I’m not MasterChef, but I enjoy cooking a lot. I like to learn a recipe and then I cook it loads of times until I know it off by heart and don’t need the recipe anymore. That’s when I start making some tweaks here and there that I feel are enhancements on the original recipe. 

For my taste at least. Probably not everyone would agree. 🙂

Sometimes I deviate just a little from the original recipe, sometimes quite a lot. But as I experiment and feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, I can relate these feelings to my own actions and so I feel like I’m flourishing. And on account of my own actions.

And that’s where the power of it lies. Knowing how much benefit I get from cooking, that it brings me happiness and supports my mental health, it becomes an act of self-kindness when I do it on purpose.

And that’s the key. 

Find things that are meaningful for you and do them on purpose.

Cooking works for me, but it can be anything – spending time with your children, exercise, hanging with friends, watching movies, dancing, studying … anything that’s meaningful for you.

I make time in my life for meaningful things. Even when I’m busy with my author and speaker work, I find the time. 

Especially when I’m busy!

Because this makes a statement to myself, to my own subconscious, that my mental (and physical) health is important to me.

So self-kindness is not self-ish.

Self-kindness is an intelligent practice that recognises your needs and acts on them. It’s a choice and a set of actions that you make on purpose because you know that they support your mental (and physical) health.

So be kind. 

To yourself and others.

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  1. Jean McDougall on May 5, 2023 at 10:02 am

    Wonderful David. Thank you : )
    Wish I had been blessed with these insights many years ago !
    B good to you x

    • David Hamilton on May 5, 2023 at 10:32 am

      Me too, Jean. I learned most of this in my adult life too. 🙂

  2. Mary McManus on May 5, 2023 at 12:45 pm

    I find that repetition is crucial to remember to keep practicing self-kindness. Thank you for taking the time to regularly share your wisdom and personal experiences. We’ve been making the Self-Love Top Up meditation a regular part of our meditation practice. Thank you!

  3. Gillian N on May 8, 2023 at 10:30 am

    Nice one David – I like to sit in the garden and just see what occurs – what bird is that singing? I’ve noticed that Lupins hold such water jewels in their centres after the rain.. I never knew dandelions only open commensurate with the amount of sun that comes out.. What trees leaf up soonest and latest.. and David Attenborough was right when he said to sit in your garden for 10 mins and some wildlife will always come along… sure enough enter the stray ginger cat or the magpie or blackbird down looking for scraps from feed bowls. The day turned up unerringly for you so you honour it and yourself by taking time out and being in the moment I think.

  4. Jennifer Cochrane on May 8, 2023 at 11:44 am

    As always a great reminder and insightful of what it means to take care of our mental health. Much love from Canada.

  5. valerie vogel on May 8, 2023 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you David! I grew up in a family of workaholics and haven’t taken vacations. Friends beg me to be kind to myself. Thank you that your blog gave me permission. V.

  6. sue Creaton on May 9, 2023 at 8:25 am

    Thank you. So clearly explained.

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