Kindness. What a pretty little word. So polite. How kind of you come today. How very afternoon tea and thank you Vicar and doilies. How very…civilised.
Kindness to others is something we’re taught from a young age. Play nicely, we’re told. Share, we’re told. Nobody likes mean children, we’re told. Many of us have grown up with a rough approximation of what kindness is supposed to look like. It looks nice (whatever the f*ck nice looks like). It looks like smiling and compliments and thank yous. It looks like remembering someone's birthday and offering the last piece of cake when you really want it yourself. It's wiping your muddy shoes on the mat and helping someone up when they fall over. The kindness we're taught acts as a benign panacea to smooth us through life.
And what about kindness to self? Where did this show up in those early life lessons? Are we supposed to simply transpose the same lessons to ourselves - compliment ourselves, smile sweetly as we serve up our beans on toast, give our reflection an encouraging ‘you go girl’ wink as we brush our teeth in the morning? And what if being kind to ourselves is having the last piece of cake ourselves? How do we learn to make sense of this conflict? Can we only be kind to ourselves if it doesn't conflict with being kind to the other?
Sadly, most of us aren't taught how to navigate this territory. In fact, it's likely that the lessons of kindness to self were not only not taught to us, but they were taught out of us. Why? Because kindness to self is far from benign. It’s nuclear.
Have you ever seen a toddler have a tantrum? A proper, beginning middle and end, uninterrupted tantrum? This is what kindness to self looks like.
Raging, tear-stained, snotty and bright red. A pulsing fuck-you made manifest in furious, furiously expressed, bottom lip quivering rage. This is what kindness to self looks like.
There is an inate knowingness to the way a toddler operates in the world. They’re curious, existing in a mode of discovery. They know enough to know where the transgressions are, and they understand how to push those boundaries. So they’ll ask when they know they’ll be told no. They’ll maintain steady eye contact as they continue anyway. The no is reaffirmed, more firmly, maybe accompanied by a cross face. Which means, game on.
Like a surfer spotting a good wave, they’re poised to begin. Tears come. They wail. They hit the deck. Flail. They embody the sweet spot where righteous anger meets luxurious despair. In the no, they’ve met the end of hope and they give themselves over to it. They coast and cruise and freewheel their way through the motions with a purity that is awe-inspiring. And then, after enough time, the energy dissipates and the fullness starts to sputter. Open-mouthed wails become staccato sobs. The mood shifts from an external to a more internal space as they begin the process of coming back to themselves. Connecting to all that is more than hopelessness and feel-good rage, they settle themselves. There may be a few exploratory glances into the room. How did I do? Is mummy still here? Perhaps a tentative reaching out? It’s over. I’m done. Can I be held now?
The wisdom of the toddler is endless. That knowingness and level of trust – to meet one’s own needs and to trust that others will meet their needs – that, that is kindness to self. To go to the edges, where the emotions are bigger than nice; that's kind. To be messy and awful and selfish and raging and not judge oneself for it; that's kindness. Any adult attempting to reignite a relationship of kindness to themselves needs to know that this is no vanilla exercise – it’s Ninja.
Kindness is having the courage of a toddler to raze the insecurities of ego and stand in the fullness of soul.
Kindness is having the courage to burn down forests of self-judgement, self-criticism, self-doubt and habitual puts down. It’s destroying notions of people pleasing, being dependable, available, good – and meeting our own needs, even before the needs of others. Kindness to self is fierce. Its voice is fire.
Kindness to self looks like saying no. Without explanation or justification. Just, sometimes, no. A complete sentence, in and of itself.
Kindness to self looks like putting a boundary around our time and space and maintaining it, even if others might want something from us.
Kindness to self is changing our minds. Saying we want one thing and then pivoting and wanting the contrary thing and cheerleading ourselves on for knowing that both are available to us.
Kindness to self is whatever action brings to life the thought, I matter.
Kindness to self is doing all this and knowing that this does not cancel out the enormous resource that is the well of kindness we offer to others.
Kindness to self is so much more than a large glass of Rioja in a bubble bath. It's the way that we tell ourselves: I'm here, I matter, I love you. It’s how we create the solid foundations on which to build a dwelling that allows us to truly come home, to the fullness of who we are. Messy. Needy. Raging. Awful. Sublime.