Committing To Self-Kindness
I’m a big fan of slow living. The world we inhabit seems to speed up more all the time, and the more I try to keep up, the less well I feel.
So for some years I’ve been following a practice of catching myself ‘in the act’ of doing too much, too fast – and putting the brakes on. Slower living, for me, is where I can actually find peacefulness and freedom.
It occurs to me that we often approach wellbeing practices in the same way – as something to be ‘mastered’ as quickly as possible. I’ve written before about mindfulness and giving up the quick fix, and I’m continuing that exploration here. I think our desire for instant success (understandable as it is) can make it harder to access the powerful benefits of self-kindness meditation.
I’ve been there: initially, I thought that the goal of these practices was to (quickly) experience some lovely peaceful feelings, and that if I didn’t achieve that result, I’d be failing at it.
Like many of the approaches I’d tried to help me feel ‘better’, I wanted self-kindness to make difficult feelings like anxiety and shame go away. And fast. Of course I did, no one wants to prolong their suffering if something might help to ease it.
But it’s interesting that the things that have helped me the most – ie self-kindness and mindfulness – have taken longer to take effect than other things that have helped to a lesser degree (and believe me I’d tried many!). Fortunately, something made me hang in there with my self-kindness practice, even though initially it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere fast.
I think that thing may have been something one of my meditation teachers said. What she shared was that it had taken her about 18 months of daily self-kindness meditation to really start to feel an impact. And that her teacher had told her the same thing.
Because I was so inspired by this teacher, I decided to give it a go, to actually commit to a long period of exploration, rather than writing it off as yet another approach that didn’t work for me. Looking back, I think I decided that I was worth the effort. I made self-kindness my main practice for the time being, and I stopped looking for other solutions. I did kindness meditation as close to daily as I could manage, whether I felt like it was ‘working’ or not.
And sure enough, I did start to notice a profound shift in how I was able to cope with difficulty. Not immediately. But after 18 months sounds about right. By then, I had discovered a reliable way to manage uncomfortable emotions without getting quite so triggered into limiting behaviours. I no longer felt afraid of anxiety, or crippled by shame and self-judgement. It was deeply liberating. It began to feel spontaneous to relate to myself with loving compassion in difficult moments, instead of self-criticism, or escaping into futile problem-solving attempts. Around this time, I found myself in an extremely stressful situation, and was so thankful that my foundation of self-kindness had become strong enough to support me through it.
I should say that I’m not being prescriptive here. I’m not saying ‘do this practice for 18 months and you’re guaranteed this result’. I’m just saying that in a world of quick fixes, we might need to adjust our expectations if we want to experience real, deep change. One person might feel a change more quickly than me; another person might say it was more like years before they felt things shift. I’m saying we need to give ourselves time.
I always found it helpful to bear in mind that these practices were gradually changing the neural pathways in my body and brain that created struggle, in the form of anxiety, shame, or whatever other unwanted emotion I was wrestling with.
And more importantly, that these pathways had been laid down over decades – throughout my life as I’d collected experiences that had shaped my way of being in the world.
So if it took decades to build those original pathways, it would also take time to build new, different ones.
These days, I think of self-kindness as less of an ‘intervention’, and more of a practice of self parenting. It’s ongoing, not a short-term project with an end point.
It’s about being in relationship with myself, not doing something to myself.
It’s a way of being there for myself, not as the parent who ‘keeps me in line’, but the deeply attuned, responsive parent I can turn to for support, love and acceptance, whatever I’m feeling. This hasn’t exactly come naturally to me, so I’ve had to invest time and commitment to build this relationship with my ‘little self’, instead of ignoring, invalidating or criticising her.
In my experience, self-kindness practice isn’t so much about trying to switch on certain feelings, as getting to know myself better. Through these meditations, I’ve gradually opened up to more of what I’m actually feeling, and this greater attunement seems naturally to help me meet my own emotional needs. This responsiveness is not dissimilar to how a mother’s loving presence helps to regulate an infant’s nervous system.
Self-kindness can be transformative and deeply healing – but we can’t rush it. As we now know from the field of somatic (body-based) mindfulness, the nervous system needs to go slowly when processing difficult emotions, to avoid being flooded by sudden contact with overwhelming feelings.
It can feel challenging and deeply unfamiliar to connect with ourselves in the way I’ve been describing, and it’s not uncommon to experience resistance to this practice. It might conflict with coping strategies we’ve adopted, or an identity we’ve assumed. A hurdle for me was to be willing to acknowledge my vulnerability, and to accept the presence of feelings such as sadness or fear. It takes courage to allow ourselves to fully experience these feelings. In my case, I was scared that if I let go of my strategies for disconnecting from theses feelings, they would overwhelm me.
Given all this, it’s really important to find a style of practice that feels supportive. If things feel too intense when we’re doing a particular mediation, we don’t need to force ourselves to keep going. We can give ourself permission, at any point in meditation, to move awareness away from something that feels too overwhelming – this too is an act of kindness.
It’s worth exploring to discover different meditation recordings, or varying the practice depending on how robust we feel on any given day – I’ve written about that previously here We may also need to work with a therapist to support the development of self-kindness, especially if we’re experiencing strong emotions or intense resistance, and that’s no sign of failure or inadequacy.
Pacing ourselves is part of how going slowly helps to build self-kindness. We don’t need to look for a big catharsis that will ‘resolve’ everything all at once; instead, we can ease ourself into closer contact with a range of feelings, a bit at a time.
It’s also important to recognise that not all self-kindness meditations are the same. There are so many different ‘ways in’ to the practice, because we’re all different! The recordings on my site include a range of approaches – for instance, some people resonate with the ‘parts of self’ approach, whereas imagery or the breath may work for someone else. My own practice keeps evolving to meet my changing needs, so I don’t just stick with one way of doing it myself.
Kristin Neff’s website is a great resource that also includes written exercises, if meditation isn’t your thing.
Personally I’m so grateful for all the teachings and resources that helped me to learn this practice, and my sincere hope is for others to find their own way in to self-kindness, taking as much time as is needed.
If you’d like to read a bit more about what self-kindness looks like in practice, and the benefits, you might like some of my other blogs on the subject:
I also offer a coaching programme (1-to-1 via Skype) which includes tools for developing self-kindness and emotional confidence.