Being Kind to Ourselves
Self-care Comes First
Written by KURA Guest Writer- Doris Lu-Anderson, PhD, E-RYT500, I-CAYT
Putting “ME” on the Top of the Care List
Many of us are willing to support and help others, and much of our time and services are devoted to others, putting ourselves at the bottom of the “care list”. We always put other people first. We keep on providing love and kindness to others even when our energy is drained. If we are constantly “withdrawing” energy from our tank without replenishing it, we won’t be able to keep up and our body will suffer. Warning signs that our body needs rest and replenishing include chest pain, fatigue, even cardiac disease.
The master yoga teacher, Nischala Joy Devi, once asked her class, “where does the blood go to after the heart receives oxygen-rich blood?” After the question was asked, the class went silent. Then, the teacher reminded the class loudly, “the heart itself!” She continued, “[the] heart helps itself first before it helps other body parts. How does that apply to us? We need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others.” This alarming reminder is for all of us.
Taking care of ourselves requires understanding how self-blaming, self-criticizing, self-judgment and even negative thoughts create psychological stress in our body, which are stressors within ourselves. On top of that, there are other external stressors such as job stress, marital unhappiness, and the burden of caregiving. Research has provided extensive data concerning stressors’ contributions to diverse pathophysiological changes including sudden death, myocardial infarction, myocardial ischemia, and wall motion abnormalities, as well as to alterations in cardiac regulation as indexed by changes in sympathetic nervous system activity and hemostasis (Dimsdale, 2008). Although stressors contribute to events, it is not easy to isolate a single “stressor” as the determining factor for an event. Stressors accumulate and intermingle. However, if we pay attention to what we can offer back to our heart, the situation can be improved.
Some people like to create “self-care time” when they take a moment to act kind or say kind things towards themselves. Some people use the concept of “self-compassion” to cultivate positive energy in themselves. Dr. Kristen Neff who has published numerous studies on self-compassion has a way of explaining it, “self-compassion involves acting the same way towards ourselves when we are having a difficult time, failing, or notice something we don’t like about ourselves than we would if we accomplished something. In these tough moments, instead of judging and criticizing ourselves, we can select remedies that offer comfort and care for ourselves. (Neff, n.d.). Self-compassion is composed of three integrated components: (1) being kind to oneself (self-kindness) instead of being critical; (2) realizing that one is not alone (common humanity) instead of feeling isolated; and (3) being aware of one’s feelings (mindfulness) without ruminating or disengaging. (Neff, 2003).”
Self-compassion is a psychological resource that may help cardiac patients manage negative thoughts and unhealthy behaviors (e.g., smoking, substance use, poor diet, lack of physical activity, poor sleeping habits, risky sexual activities, and non-compliance to prescribed medical treatments) (Semenchuk et al., 2020). In addition, Kirschner et al. (2019) state, “studies have found that practicing self-compassion calms the heart rate, switches off the body’s threat response, [and more].”
The Heart Represents Love, Compassion, and Care
The renowned author, Louise Hay, mentioned that the heart represents love, while our blood represents joy. Our hearts lovingly pump joy throughout our bodies. When we deny ourselves, love, the heart is deprived and becomes cold. As a result, the blood gets sluggish, and our body crawls its way to anemia, angina, and heart attacks. However, the heart does not “attack” us. We often forget to notice the little joys that surround us. We spend years squeezing all the joy out of the heart, and it literally falls over in pain. For people who do not take time to appreciate things in life, there is a higher risk that they will suffer from heart problems.
Nischala Joy Devi prefers to translate Ahimsa, which is part of Yama-reflection of our true nature, in the Yoga Sutra as reverence, love, compassion for all (to others and ourselves). She further explains that when we refuse to treat our bodies, emotions, and minds with reverence and love, they often remind us by failing to respond when we need them. After some time, our lifestyle may allow disease (dis-ease) to creep into our life. Therefore, it is essential to listen to our hearts and body parts and take care of them. She reminds people that to better serve others, we must provide for ourselves first. It is only then that we are inspired to live for the good of all (Devi, 2007).
How to Practice Self-Compassion?
There are things that we can do to modify or “re-program” our thoughts, so they are more compassionate and caring towards our body. This re-programming may lead our hearts towards a better healing process. Before we start, we need to give ourselves a break. Dr. Neff (2015) provides some tips for practicing self-compassion:
1. Consider how you would treat someone else. Imagine what you would do if someone you care about came to you after failing or getting rejected. What would you say to that person? How would you treat them?
2. Watch your language. We often ignore the words that we speak to ourselves. This helps us pay attention to this “self-talk”. If you would not say something to someone you care about and you say it about yourself, then you’re being self-critical.
3. Write a letter to yourself. Focus on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. What would your imaginary friend say to you about your “flaw” with the perspective of unlimited compassion?
4. Comfort yourself with a physical gesture. Kind physical gestures have an immediate effect on our bodies, activating the soothing parasympathetic system. For example, put your hands over your heart or simply hold your arm.
5. Practicing a set of compassionate phrases. Whenever you find yourself saying, “I’m terrible,” it helps to have a few phrases at the ready. Use those phrases that really resonate with you. Combining compassionate phrases with a physical gesture — both hands over your heart (Eagle Mudra in Yoga). An example of the phrases from Dr. Neff:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment?
May I give myself the compassion I need?
6. Practice guided meditation. Meditation helps to re-cultivate the brain. Dr. Neff provides meditations focused on self-compassion. We can also apply Louise Hay’s positive affirmation phrases:
- “I bring joy back to the center of my heart. I express love to all”
- “Joy. Joy. Joy. I lovingly allow joy to flow through my mind and body and experience.”
Providing kindness, love, compassion, and care is essential to nurture ourselves. Negative thoughts, self-blaming, and self-judgment contribute nothing but damage to our body and heart. If we change our thoughts to re-introduce joy, love, compassion, and kindness- our hearts might be lighter and more joyful.
Devi, N. J. (2007). The secret power of yoga: A woman’s guide to the heart and spirit of the yoga sutras. The Rivers Press.
Dimsdale, J. E. (2008). Psychological stress and cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 51(13), 1237–1246.
Hay, L. (1999). You can heal your life. Hay House, Inc.
Kirschner, H., Kuyken, W., Wright, K., Roberts, H., Brejcha, C., & Karl, Anke (2019). Soothing your heart and feeling connected: A new experimental paradigm to study the benefits of self-compassion. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(3), 545–565.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101.
Neff, K. (2015). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. William Morrow Paperback.
Neff, K. (n.d.). Definition of self-compassion. Self-Compassion. Retrieved October 3, 2020 from https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
Semenchuk, B. N., Boreskle, K.F., Hay, J. L., Miller, C., Duhamel, T. A., & Strachan, S. M. (2020). Self-compassion and responses to health information in middle-aged and older women: An observation cohort study. Journal of Health Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105320909860