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Kick-Start Kindness: Be a Good Friend to Yourself

Kids at a carnival

Kick-Start Kindness: Be a Good Friend to Yourself

By Tara Cousineau, PhD, author of The Kindness Cure

Another year is passing by. A new page opens on the calendar. One wonders about what’s changed in a year, or a decade, or more. There is an old merry-go-round at a local beach on the shore not far from where I live. You can see the ninety-year-old Paragon Carousel from a jet plane if you're lucky enough to fly from the south over the Atlantic Ocean into Boston, MA, which I recently did. Some of my favorite photos of my daughters were taken there when they were babes, as countless other families have also done. I wonder why we love those mechanical horses and chariots so much, and the perpetual drone of that jingle.

Here we go again, I ponder. What is rounding the next corner? The big intentions. Those new resolutions to change something that you don’t like about yourself. Maybe you decide to do less of one thing or more of the other: eat less, exercise more; text less, talk more; work less, play more.   

Or, there may be a contrarian out there who prefers making an ‘unresolution’ and drops the to-do list altogether, knowing that most resolutions fail by Groundhog Day. These unresolutions seem to be the optimist’s to-do list in artful disguise: vision boards, love lists, desire maps, and intention mandalas. Such activities seem to be less of a chore and more inspirational decor to hang on a wall. (I can show you mine.)

My favorite ritual is ‘burning your grudges.’ Literally. Write them down and set them aflame. Naturally, this is more fun to do with friends over a firepit. But there’s nothing wrong with striking a match to a sticky note in the backyard either. Clear out the old, make space for the new. Auld Lang Syne.

I have another idea for this round. What if the only thing you decide to do in the coming year is this: 

Be a good friend.

To yourself. That’s right. What if the only thing you intentionally changed is to treat yourself like you would a loved one or a friend in need? There are no to-dos or wish lists. This is different than setting a goal to cultivate a healthy habit. New habits form when goals are small, realistic, and achievable in a short time frame so you can be accountable to yourself and feel successful over time. Add ten minutes to a walk. Eliminate sugar from a meal. No screen time after 8pm. This is a great strategy when practiced. But being a friend to yourself is much more subtle—it’s even subversive.

Refreshingly, a new year invites a new take on things, and being kinder may just be the missing ingredient. A new year, like any milestone day, marks a point in time for reflecting on where one’s been and where one wants to go. One definition of reflection  is “a fixing of the thoughts on something; careful consideration.” Being kind to yourself is about caring and consideration—for all aspects of yourself, especially the parts that struggle with disappointments, regrets, or broken hearts.

Befriending yourself may seem weird at first. Yet, it involves the same set of skills that you would use in being a trusted friend to someone else—skills you already have. Think about this for a moment. How might you describe a good friend?

A good friend:

…is present.

…listens with full attention.

…embodies empathy.

…uses a kind tone.

…offers a gentle touch.

…reminds you of your worth.

…makes you laugh.

…distracts you for a while.

…offers hope.

…says a little prayer.

You may have your own ideas. Now direct those qualities toward yourself. Turn those skills you already have in caring for others back toward yourself. How? Tap your imagination and picture yourself as a friend. It can even help to look a photo of your younger self—at age five or fourteen or forty—and direct loving-kindness and warm wishes. As you approach a new year, see if you can open your heart to the friend in you. This means having ‘kindsight’—viewing your past experiences with tenderness and understanding. It also means practicing a daily dose of ‘kindfulness’—being aware of the present moment with heart. This softer lens helps you tweak the story you hold about yourself. 

In essence, self-compassion is having a conversation with yourself that says, I’m here for you. I’ve got your back. Yeah, that’s tough and I’m here for you. There’s no judgment or fixing a problem. You are pushing aside the drone of an inner critic, that merry-go-round of negative thoughts that cycles through your mind when you aren’t paying attention. It’s like that line from Pixar’s Toy Story theme song: You‘ve got troubles, I’ve got them, too. This cultivates a sense of connection to humanity while at the same time pushes aside the nagging jingle of self-doubt or self-recrimination. Instead, the new theme song you are playing is more like: You’ve got a friend in me.

So, kick-start kindness this year. Let it begin within you.

The Kindness Cure Cover

Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher, well-being researcher, and social entrepreneur. She is affiliated with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, MA. She is a mindfulness trainer and chief science officer at Whil, a digital mindfulness company; and serves as a scientific advisor to www.kindness.org. She is dedicated to global efforts to spread kindness in both small ways and large.