Fire your internal drill sergeant, it’s time to be kind to yourself

So you’ve broken your resolutions, what matters now is getting past your lapse

Fire your internal drill sergeant: the way forward is to take a kinder attitude towards yourself. Photograph: iStock

Fire your internal drill sergeant: the way forward is to take a kinder attitude towards yourself. Photograph: iStock

 

Have you whipped your unwilling body into shape yet? If you brought that attitude to your January health resolutions, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the answer was no.

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health
January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

Fire your internal drill sergeant: the way forward is to take a kinder attitude towards yourself.

That doesn’t mean you are about to abandon self-improvement: quite the opposite. One of the benefits of taking a deliberately self-compassionate approach is that people who do so experience less stress and engage in healthier behaviours.

A major component of self-compassion is a sense of kindness towards yourself as you are right now. You don’t make liking the person in the mirror dependent on losing the kilos or cutting down on your poison of choice. The one you try to like is the one you are.

Resolve to adopt a friendly attitude towards yourself

A second component of self-compassion is an awareness of how much you share with other people around the world. Your hopes and fears, triumphs and failures, faults and virtues are quite similar to those experienced by millions of other people. If you fail you are not uniquely bad – lots of other people are failing today too.

Why should this approach contribute to better physical health?

A large part of the effect is believed to result from lower stress. Stress, as we all know, is bad for our health in many ways, heart health probably being the main concern.

Like everybody else, every now and then you set out to change behaviours, to exercise more or eat less or do some yoga or whatever else it is that you believe would be good for you.

Somewhere along that line you’re probably going to fall off the wagon, pig out on ice cream, sleep late on Saturday instead of running up a mountain in the pre-dawn hours, smoke cigarettes, and so on.

What matters now is getting past your lapse and back on to your chosen path.

Harsh

Those who are harsh on themselves can find a lapse so stressful that they seek comfort by indulging in more of whatever they had stopped or cut down. So you are doing a dry January, you have a drink and you make yourself feel so stressed through self-condemnation that you need to escape into another drink and another and so on.

A self-compassionate person can acknowledge their own disappointment, can accept that they are not unique in having stumbled along the way and can get back on the path again.

But how would you develop self-compassion? One is to resolve to adopt a friendly attitude towards yourself, as I mentioned above, without waiting for perfection. Another is to spot the vicious self-talk in which we engage, saying things to ourselves we would accept from nobody else.

This can mean focussing on what you really need to do. If you accidentally drop a glass and it shatters, what you need to do is to sweep up the glass. That’s far more important than calling yourself every name under the sun and engaging in an orgy of self-punishment.

Get good at spotting self-attacking – it’s usually exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Once you realise this, you can stop it when it happens, even seeing it as a rather ridiculous voice.

Remember that with a self-compassionate approach you don’t need to achieve great things to make yourself like yourself. If you want to achieve great things, that’s fine so long as that is what you want. But if you don’t really want it, if you’re only doing it because you don’t like who you are, you might be setting yourself up for failure.

To get back to those January resolutions, if they are not going as well as you wanted them to go, accept that this is the experience of many people around the world. Accept that these include many millions of good people, whom you would probably like if you knew them.

Then apply that understanding and self compassion to yourself, get back on to your path, get moving, and see how much better you will do.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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