What’s the one thing you can do today to improve your emotional wellbeing? Start treating yourself with kindness. When we’re super-critical of ourselves, it’s easy to assume that other people may have similar thoughts about us, even if outwardly they seem kind and accepting. So it’s no surprise that having a vocal inner critic goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression. ‘You see both the outside world and your inner world as critical and condemning, and as a result, you have nowhere safe, calming, soothing or kind to go,’ says psychologist Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, the academic behind Compassionate Mind Therapy.
Yet so many clients think that being hard on themselves is a good thing, motivating them to change. In truth, the opposite is true, says Dr Mary Welford, author of The Compassionate Mind Approach to Building Your Self-Confidence: ‘Being hard on yourself isn’t motivating – self-critical thoughts make you doubt your ability to change. Would you expect a teacher who constantly criticises to bring out the best in their students or undermine them?’
A kind and supportive word to yourself when you need it most may even change your brain chemistry. According to research by professor of psychology Dr Kristin Neff, the brain can’t distinguish between kindness from another person, or kindness from yourself – it reacts the same way, by releasing the calming chemical, oxytocin, and reducing levels of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, cortisol. And in one study, participants who simply imagined they were on the receiving end of loving kindness lowered their cortisol levels.
Sometimes I ask clients to talk back to their inner critic. Visualise it as a person (or a green goblin if that works for them), and imagine saying to it: ‘Look I’m sorry you’re angry, upset, frightened and feeling vulnerable and that you want to lash out like this. However, this is not the way it needs to be. I’m going to be more in charge now.’ By standing up to the critical side of yourself, and recognising that it’s linked to threats, disappointments or voices from the past, you can allow your compassionate self to take control.
I fell in love with mindfulness around eight years ago but in recent years our relationship has gone a bit stale. I found myself in the slightly fraudulent position of writing about its benefits in health features (Less stress! Better concentration! Fewer biscuit binges!), and teaching it to counselling clients, without actually practising it myself. I convinced myself that because I was aware of what it means to ‘live mindfully’, it was enough to do it in daily life (focussing on my breathing while waiting in queues was a favourite) rather than finding time to ‘sit’. After all, isn’t the whole point of mindfulness to be more present generally, not more present while sitting on a meditation cushion?
But recently I’ve had a change of heart, thanks to a book, Mind Calm by Sandy Newbigging, kindly sent to me by Hayhouse publishers. It reminded me that meditation has a cumulative effect and the more often you practise, the deeper the effects. So for the first time in around a year, I have made time twice a day to do a short, eyes closed, sitting meditation. And I think I’m falling back in love. Not only am I sleeping better, but my concentration levels have gone up and I’m not as tired in the evenings.
As a result, I’m being a lot more productive. Last year I interviewed several inspiring businesswomen for a feature on work-life balance – like Dessi Bell, former investment banker and creator of Zaggora Hotpants – and I was surprised at how many said they started the day with meditation. Now I’m beginning to see why – it’s like super-charging your brain.
Sandy also confesses to being a reluctant meditator, trying it only on the insistence of a good friend who knew he was stressed and unhappy despite his successful career. One of the benefits he says he most appreciates since incorporating daily practise into his life is needing less sleep, but having more energy.
There’s no doubt that being ‘mindful’ and staying in the moment throughout the day is also important, if only to avoid getting frustrated in queues. But for the real, life-changing benefits of mindfulness, you can’t substitute time on the cushion.