The art of kindness

Have you been anywhere nice on your holidays?

I was speaking to a friend the other day about planning a weekend somewhere by myself. Money is tight at the moment but if I save carefully then I could manage a few nights away. I’ve never been on holiday by myself, much as I’ve always loved the idea. And I’ve just copped on that the only thing stopping me is my ingrained sense of guilt at the thought of treating myself.

That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? Being kind to yourself is so difficult! Most people find it easy to be kind to others, but being nice to yourself can actually be quite a battle. Us Irish might describe somebody who was thinking of going on a holiday by themselves as being ‘fierce fond of themselves’! I’m very proud of my nationality but unfortunately the Irish psyche does consist of a lot of the old guilt. Add into this a depressive’s natural lack of self-worth and you can see why I might think it’s a massive self-indulgence to go away by myself.

A number of counsellors I have seen over the years have spoken to me about the practise of ‘self-soothing’. (Any moms out there will recognise this one!) Basically, self soothing involves finding a strategy to calm yourself down when you feel anxious, so you deal with the anxiety yourself before it takes over. I’m guessing for mothers it involves things like letting babies cry a tiny bit in the hope they will calm themselves before you pick them up? Anyway, self-soothing is a form of being kind to yourself. That may sound easy enough, but the problem is that when you are feeling anxious and panicked, all rational thinking goes out the window. In the middle of a bout of anxiety I hate myself, so why would I deserve kindness?

Thankfully I’m not anxious all the time these days, and herein lies the key. When I feel calm and logical I try to practice the art of kindness, in the hopes that soon my brain will remember it when the anxiety floods in. Our brains contain neural pathways, along which information travels. These get used to certain ways of thinking, and a part of managing my illness has been trying to retrain them. An example of this is my anxiety about facial hair. When it’s really bright and sunny outside, my immediate response is to go and check in the mirror for dark hairs on my face. So in my mind the brightness has triggered an anxiety, the anxiety has travelled along a neural pathway to my automatic response, which is to look in the mirror and check for hairs. This response is unhealthy as it doesn’t actually calm my anxiety; it makes it worse. I haven’t dealt with the initial anxiety here at all, I have just acted on it. The ‘kind’ thing to do in this situation would be to distract myself from that immediate impulse by doing something else and waiting for the anxiety to pass. This is the way to retrain those neural pathways.

Obviously it’s not easy, or I would have mastered the technique years ago! Learning to manage an illness like anxiety requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Making the decision to love yourself is difficult, but it’s worth it. Have a think about all the things that make you happy and try to do something every day, however small, that is just for you. It could be as simple as cooking yourself a healthy dinner, going outside for ten minutes of fresh air, or going for a pedicure. Nurturing yourself is all part of being healthy, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Like anything, practise makes perfect, and this is why I have been trying to be kind to myself as much as I can.

I haven’t booked that holiday yet but I have been allowing myself to eat Nutella on a regular basis (my favourite treat!), and I have booked myself on a creative writing evening course for the autumn. This class felt like a huge indulgence and I am worried the other people in the class will laugh at me, but I am going to give it a go. Writing makes me feel calmer, and therefore being kind to myself by doing something I enjoy can only be a good thing.

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