I Spent 30 Days Practicing Self-Kindness—Here’s What I Learned
I hate making my bed. Not in the sullen, rebellious teenager kind of way; I just want to get my day started, and spending time doing chores in the morning seems to impede that. So here I am on Day 6 of my 30-day self-kindness challenge, staring at a crumpled bed, toothbrush in hand, listing all the perfectly valid reasons to ignore it and try again tomorrow.
Jolie Kerr is passionate about bed-making. The cleaning expert, Esquire advice columnist, best-selling author and host of the podcast Ask a Clean Person, dedicated two episodes to the topic in conjunction with her annual 30-day challenge: Let’s All Make… Our Beds (#LAMOB). She argues that bed-making is part of being an adult and exponentially more beneficial than the simple act might at first seem.
I added “Make my bed” to the self-kindness list because it’s a habit I’ve never succeeded in keeping—and of course because my mom told me to. I can make my bed in 49 seconds. I counted. I have it down to a four-step science: Hiss at the cat until she runs, un-wad the top sheet and comforter from the floor, curse at the uselessness of top sheets, fling the pillows at the headboard. Forty-nine seconds flat. Kerr says she can do it in 30, but she’s had more practice and probably doesn’t believe in the messiness of cat-ownership.
While I procrastinate, Kerr’s words come to mind: “It’s a small thing,” she says. “But also not so small, because coming home to a tidy and pulled-together-looking bedroom will make you feel a whole bunch of positive things.” Among those are in-control, calm and grown-up. That last one sounds nice.
I quiet the excuses and reach for the cat. The reminder wasn’t always effective, but she was right. On the days I spent 49 seconds being a grown-up, I did feel more put together. And I’m not alone. In a survey conducted by Hunch.com, 71 percent of consistent bed-makers reported feeling happier. Sliding between close-but-not-Martha-Stewart-approved layers at night was hotel magical. Kerr says this feeling helps shift our mindset from bed-making as a chore to bed-making as a gift. What if I could apply that logic to every unpleasant task?
As that mindset evolved, I became more at peace with my journey to be kinder to myself. I learned some surprising benefits in the process; most important, that being kind to ourselves isn’t about feeling good in the moment, it’s about doing things we might not like right now as a gift to our future selves. It wasn’t easy; 45-year-old me had better appreciate this.
1. Complimenting yourself helps you see the positives Not just in yourself, but in your surroundings.
March 7, 2017:
- I appreciate that you’re more comfortable wearing less makeup.
- I appreciate that you took time to check on my friend Maggie even though you’re busy.
- I appreciate that you attempted to write a third appreciation.
Harvard University researcher and SUCCESS Happiness Guy Shawn Achor touts the benefits of logging three things you’re grateful for each night because it trains your brain to scan the past 24 hours for positive things while pushing minor annoyances to the background. I turned the exercise on myself.
I wrote 93 nice things about myself in March. OK, I tried to write 93. It was more like 60. Some are heartfelt and thoughtful. Most lack inspiration. This exercise, intended to combat the flow of negative self-talk naturally produced in our brains, is just ridiculous enough to be effective. Science agrees. In one study, participants reported increased happiness at one-, three- and six-month follow-ups, even when they didn’t continue the exercise every day.
I can’t claim causation. After all, the Three Good Things exercise is competing against 30 others for the spot of “definitely increased happiness.” But I smile as I reread the scribbled compliments about having a good volleyball game or remembering to work on my posture (“so you won’t look 80 at 50”).
2. Saying no allows me to live on my own terms.
I’m a mean person. I hear this fact, sometimes paired with a high five but mostly a sad smile, often. Maybe it’s because of the way the edges of my mouth turn down—a maternal gift spanning at least three generations. Maybe it’s because I don’t always think before I speak, especially during times where sarcasm is appropriate, which—to me—is all the time. To balance that image, I often say yes to everything. Edit your 87-page master’s thesis? Sure. Drive 45 minutes to the airport at 4:30 a.m.? Love to.
I complain later. I promise never to say yes again. (I always say yes again.) But now, armed with this challenge, I set out to say no 20 days in a row. I made it to nine and that’s mostly because you can’t tell your boss no, challenge be damned. I avoided three awkward lunches, two editing favors and four nights out, which I spent with takeout and several chapters of Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari.
I feel guilty saying no. As if I’m rejecting the person rather than the request. Christine Carter, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, says every time we say yes to something we don’t have the time, energy or desire to do, we say no to ourselves. We send a message to our brains that our well-being and happiness fall second to a grammatically correct paper about the importance of a business marketing plan.
It’s true. I have spent dozens of nights doing favors for friends at the expense of my sleep and relaxation. Carter offers strategies for saying no without offending the friendship, such as “I want to do that, but I’m not available until next month. Will you ask me again then?” and “I really appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed.” I’m writing this section at 1:30 a.m. because I spent the past 2.5 hours explaining the basics of Photoshop to my friend’s mother. The tactics work about 50 percent of the time, but that’s 50 percent more than no tactics. Progress.
3. I have failed, but I’m not a failure.
One day I sit down to write myself a love letter. The blank page stares at me and suddenly I feel incapable of writing anything, much less a love letter. Of course you can’t finish the challenge, I think. You never finish anything. The words swirl through my head, familiar and abrasive.
The voice in our heads can propel us forward or cripple us with fear and doubt. Kevin Gilliland, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and author of Struggle Well, Live Well, says it’s about being active and purposeful with our thoughts. “The space between stimulus and response is a gift,” he writes. “When we think passively, we allow horrible, catastrophic thoughts to run around in our heads unchecked as if, No. 1, they’re true and No. 2, they’re having no impact on us.”
Maybe forgiveness, like kindness, is a habit that requires patience, understanding and—there it is again—a little compassion.
I never stopped to analyze how my negative self-talk impeded progress until I imagined saying the same words to a friend—an exercise Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a pioneering self-compassion researcher, uses with her clients. What I really needed to learn was self-compassion. It’s hard to stop the initial self-critical thoughts that pop up, but I can learn to respond with understanding and empathy.
I picture my best friend, Hannah, who recently landed a full-time job at an advertising agency right out of college. The week before her first day, she was stressed and nervous. I picture her face. “Of course you’re nervous. You don’t deserve this job,” I imagine saying to her. The words feel like a knife coming off my tongue, but it works. I would never say those things to her. I wouldn’t even say them to someone I don’t like. Instead, I imagine what Hannah would tell me about writing a love letter to myself. First she would laugh, because that’s what best friends do. Then she would say I’m the most talented writer she knows, because that’s what best friends do.
4. You might not feel the benefits. That doesn’t mean it’s not working.
Of the 470 boxes on the spreadsheet I use to track my self-kindness acts, 183 are marked red, incomplete. Improving yourself is hard. There is no secret recipe or easy shortcut. It takes time to build a habit and to forgive the times you don’t stick with the habit.
It’s easier to forgive other people. We don’t know their lives or the things they were going through when they wronged us. We don’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. When I fail, especially when I intentionally choose to put off something that will better me, the negative self-talk is deafening. So on Day 22, I set out to find self-forgiveness.
- Step 1: Recall a mistake. Easy, I have a million to choose from. The worst of the worst surface and sets my heart on a sprint.
- Step 2: Write down the mistake. Use detail. Cue rumination.
- Step 3: Verbally forgive yourself.
- Step 4: Wait.
My heart is still racing and I don’t feel better or healed or less embarrassed by the mistake that I refuse to have published in these pages. But forgiveness isn’t a binary state. No matter what words I say to myself, the feelings of guilt, hurt and embarrassment remain. Was I missing a step? In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers found that participants who imagined receiving forgiveness reported “alleviated guilt and negative emotion, increased perceived control, decreased heart rate and increased parasympathetic activation.” My heart rate begs to differ.
Maybe, like most things in life, this process takes time. Although it was a relatively minor slip-up, I have spent more than 10 years reliving The Mistake That Shall Not Be Named. It seems unreasonable that I would expect relief after a two-minute exercise. Maybe forgiveness, like kindness, is a habit that requires patience, understanding and—there it is again—a little compassion.
5. Don’t take life (or yourself) too seriously.
I’m lying on a mauve couch in a secluded corner of my office attempting to take a guilt-free afternoon nap. If you’ve ever tried to nap at work, you’ll understand that it’s not as easy as it sounds. My thoughts wander; I picture my to-do list; I imagine my boss—who isn’t the kind to keep tabs—wondering where I am.
Every time we say yes to something we don’t have the time, energy or desire to do, we say no to ourselves.
I spend the whole 20 minutes adjusting my aching neck on a couch that was clearly built more for looks than nap sessions, instead of thanking the journalism gods for a challenge that includes taking naps at the office and being late to work because I had to watch the sun rise. I’m not sure if either of them are scientifically proven to boost my happiness, productivity, likeability, etc. But that morning on my back patio, phone still by my bed, hot coffee in hand, cat in lap, was glorious.
This challenge is a sobering reminder to stop taking myself so damn seriously. Seriously.
Being kind to yourself is one of those things that sounds easy in conversation but difficult in practice. Last year I spent a month being generous toward others in the hope that I would find fulfillment and increased happiness (I did). So my editor asked me to turn that generosity inward. Spend a month doing acts that allow me to appreciate myself, reflect and grow.
But the truth is, saying some Hallmark-worthy phrases to yourself isn’t an exact science for increasing your feelings of self-worth. At least not that we feel right away. But that doesn’t mean it’s not working. Growth—in any form—is never easy. It takes patience, persistence and… yes, self-compassion, a reminder we need more than once per day.
I failed (a lot) during this challenge. There were days I didn’t even want to get out of bed, let alone make it. There were times when I robotically performed my self-kindness acts just to check them off the list. It didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. But we can’t always trust our emotions, can we? That goes both ways. In the same way I can’t trust that this exercise isn’t working, I also can’t trust that negative voice inside my head that tells me it’s pointless and definitely not working.
Being kind to yourself isn’t about feeling good. After all, doing what feels good isn’t always what’s best for us. But taking the time to compliment myself, to nurture my self-compassion—no matter how annoying in the moment—sends a message to future me that she, in all her imperfect 45-year-old glory, matters. That’s a gift worth giving.
Related: 8 Reasons Self-Care Isn’t Selfish
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.