One of the most effective questions I’ve found to ask clients who present with a scenario on which they want advice is, “What would you say if your best friend asked you the same thing?” Very often this comes up when working with relationship issues and they’ve just told me a story that involves behaviour that they know deep down is unacceptable. They can only see it clearly when through a different lens. They look at me with incredulity and say something like: “I’d tell them to run a mile!”

I ask (gently!) why they don’t show themselves the same kindness.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is kindness, and I welcome this. ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind,’ say the slogans. ‘When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind,’ is one of my favourite quotes from a book (RJ Palacio’s Wonder). Who could argue with these sentiments? And yet, there’s an essential piece missing from the kindness narrative: the way we treat ourselves.

Many of us have a critical inner voice – it goes something like: you’re clumsy, stupid, not good enough. You can’t do it; you don’t deserve it. Would we talk to someone we love like that (a best friend again, or a child)? Never. Would we talk to anyone like that? Probably not. Would we tolerate someone else speaking to us like that? The answer to that is sometimes a bit more complex, but is still very often no.

So why are we so bad at being our own best friend?

That voice isn’t always really our own, for starters; it’s more of an unkind chorus, made up of the voices who’ve brought you down over the years, for reasons that are probably more to do with them than you. Unfortunately, when we hear negative messages often enough, they get stored away and eventually received as fact. 

In the current lockdown, I’m observing a lot of people being unkind to themselves. Theodore Roosevelt said ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, and as our normal lives shrink and fold inwards, we have only the hall of mirrors that is social media to inhabit; and the reflection is rarely flattering. Everyone else seems to be coping better, being wildly productive, or totally zen; others are performing heroic deeds while we are just, well, staying in; people are writing books, baking cakes and doing daily workouts while we’re just keeping our heads above water. Instead of admiring them for how they are, we berate ourselves for what we are not.

In a conversation with a friend the other night we talked about how quick we are to bring our (perceived) failures into the light, pick over them while neglecting to notice and prize ourselves for our successes.

One way to drown out the negative self-talk is to dial up the positives. What would your friends, and all the people you love, say about you? What’s the thing you’re most proud of? What’s the nicest compliment you ever received? What are your best qualities? Could you try reminding yourself of those things – just as you would a friend?

Being kind to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean letting yourself off the hook, though. We’ve all had days where we know, honestly, that we could have done better, could have been better (home schooling, anyone?) Being kind means recognising that. It means accepting that as a human you did the best you could with the resources that you had in that moment. It means accepting your foibles and frailties and drawing a line under today’s mistakes. It means bigging yourself up to believe that you can be better.

Being kind means that tomorrow, you’ll give yourself the patience and the space to try.

Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help.