In Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Dr. Christine Northrup emphasizes the importance of our relationship with ourselves: “Behavior is based on respect for self. Respect for self results in respect for others.” While I try to live by this philosophy, if I’m going to cut corners, it’s usually in the kindness-to-self department. Over the years, I’ve learned ways to be gentler to myself.
The following are a few strategies for treading gently:
1. Have a self-care ritual.
What activities relax you? Make time for these; they are important. I tend to gravitate towards quiet activities like drinking herbal tea and reading a novel or a magazine; although simple and mundane, activities like these play a large role in how I feel from day to day, which, in turn, affects the way I treat myself. Allow your self-care ritual to help you slow down.
2. Practice Mindfulness.
When we are “mindful,” we are attentive to the present moment. Mindfulness entails focusing on our current surroundings rather than reliving memories or daydreaming about the future. While we are mindful, we can observe our thoughts without judgment and gently refocus ourselves when we notice that our minds have started to drift.
For me, staying mindful helps me avoid nasty thought cycles. For example, when I think a negative thought towards myself, I can a) add to the thought with other mean thoughts; b) notice that I’ve had an unhealthy thought and chide myself for it; or c) notice that I’ve had this thought and choose to move away from that thought by turning my focus to something simple in the present moment, like my breath.
I say “practice” mindfulness because this process does require practice. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for cognitive behavior and decision-making, plays a key role in mindfulness. The traditional Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex’s ability to observe and re-channel our own thoughts. The effects of meditation on the brain are so pervasive that psychologists and neuroscientists have carried out hundreds of studies on the subject. In one meta-study, a team of researchers at Chemnitz University of Technology (Germany) reviewed nearly 600 studies on the effects of meditation and concluded that the practice is “comparable to the impact of behavioral treatments and psychotherapy on patients.” Moreover, the meta-study found that meditation positively affects cognition by reducing counterproductive emotions.
3. Re-center yourself with the aid of breathing exercises. If possible, incorporate a breathing exercise into your daily routine.
Quiet, centering exercise: Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and still your mind. Focus on the sound and feeling of your breath. With each inhalation, imagine your breath travelling from the base of your spine to the space directly above the top of your head. Pause. As you exhale, imagine releasing the breath, beginning at the top of your head down to the base of your spine. At the end of each exhalation, pause and dwell in the moment’s peace. Repeat and continue for as long as desired.
Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing): Begin by exhaling. Close your right nostril with your right thumb, and slowly inhale through your left nostril. Pause. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger, and release your right nostril with your right thumb. Exhale slowly through your right nostril. Pause. Inhale through your right nostril. Close the right nostril with your right thumb, release your left nostril and calmly exhale. This completes one round. Begin with ten rounds and gradually increase as desired. Traditionally, pranayama is practiced on an empty stomach.
4. Realize that you have the power to affect your mood.
We don’t always have to power to change our immediate circumstances, and sometimes our mood responds in kind. A friend once told me that happiness is a choice. I remember resenting that comment; now I’d simply like to revise it. For most of us (most of the time), we have the choice to treat ourselves with gentleness from moment to moment. This involves a series of small though cumulative decisions that shape our relationship to ourselves. I won’t argue that this guarantees happiness, however we choose to define that term. Given the complexity of our internal lives, saying “I choose happiness,” while perhaps a step in the right direction, may ultimately be insufficient. You have great power, however, to shape your attitude daily by being gentle to yourself. And it’s okay to start small.
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