Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.
None of us are strangers to the “rough day.” Sometimes it happens because everything’s going okay but we’re not feeling well, mentally or physically. Sometimes it happens because nothing is going okay. And sometimes it happens because nothing is going okay and we don’t feel well, physically or mentally.
Recently, I had one of those nothing’s-going-okay-and-I-don’t-feel-well days.
I woke up feeling awful because I’d had trouble sleeping the night before—a not uncommon occurrence due to my ongoing chronic pain and illness. I stumbled into the shower only to find that the water wouldn’t drain. While I waited to see how long it would take to go down, I thought I’d put a load of wash in the washing machine. It’s on the other side of the house from the shower, so I didn’t expect the sink it empties into to be an issue. But when I got there, that sink was full of water and it looked as if it hadn’t been drained for days.
So much for my quiet morning. Immediately, I called our trusty plumber (who’s been coming to our house for over 20 years) only to be told that he was on leave and they’d have to send someone else.
When I hung up, suddenly my phone (a landline, which is my principal phone) went whacko. It started ringing every 2-3 minutes. The only way to stop the ringing was to pick up the receiver except, when I did that, the line was dead. I’d hang up and, of course, the phone would start ringing again. This went on for about an hour.
Once that unfortunate hour was up, the dial tone returned but there was so much static on the line that I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand what anyone was saying. So, I contacted the phone company, only to be told that they couldn’t send someone out for four days. This is a long time for me because, although I have a cell phone, it sits in my purse only to be used in the car in case of an emergency.
Having had such a rough night, I badly needed to nap, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know when the plumber would arrive.
I found myself getting increasingly cranky. Let’s just say there was a lot of grumbling and complaining going on in my mind. One repeating grievance was “It’s not fair!”—a refrain I’d guess we’re all familiar with, even though we know that life isn’t always fair.
Then it dawned on me that this frame of mind had me taking an already rough day and then making it worse by turning myself into a victim as if the world were conspiring against me. I asked myself what I could do to make things better, even though the day wasn’t turning out as I wanted. The answer came to me loud and clear:
“Be nice to yourself.”
This may sound simple but it isn’t for a lot of people. I know because they write to me after reading my books or articles and tell me that the hardest thing for them to do is to treat themselves kindly. They blame themselves for everything from their bad moods to events that are completely out of their control, such as a problem with the plumbing or the telephone. They think that anything that goes wrong is their fault.
This state of mind is the result of lifelong conditioning which has led many of us to be our own harshest critics. We don’t think we’re worthy of our own kindness. I couldn’t disagree more! Why should we treat others well but not ourselves?
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This lifelong conditioning to devalue ourselves usually stems from being in the presence of overly critical people when we were growing up—our parents or other influential figures in our lives. Slowly but surely, treating ourselves poorly became a habit—and a habit can be hard to break.
That said, all of us can break it. This is because the way we treat ourselves is one of the few things we actually have control over in this life. We can’t control what happens to the plumbing or the telephone. And (sometimes sadly), we can’t control how others treat us. But we can control how we treat ourselves. Life can be hard. The very least we can do is ease our burden by being nice to ourselves. We can learn to treat ourselves kindly and with compassion even though it may feel like a foreign emotion to us. Here are three suggestions for getting started.
First, think about what being kind feels like.
Ask yourself how you’d treat a loved one who was having a rough day and then turn that behavior around and treat yourself that way. It helps to be specific—to recall a particular incident when someone you cared about was struggling, and you came to his or her aid.
It’s also helpful to recall the behavior of someone in your life who was always kind to you. For me, it was my nana. She lived with us the last few years of her life. I’d go to her room when I was having a rough day because I knew there would be kindness waiting for me behind her door. I think about specific ways in which she eased my suffering and then copy that behavior. (Warning: this strategy may result in the making of cinnamon toast!)
Second, re-prioritize your day.
Put aside anything that isn’t essential to your health and safety. A lot of people don’t realize this is an option. When I was younger, I thought I had to do every single thing I’d planned to do on a particular day. Most of us are conditioned to always be productive and take care of business immediately, but sometimes it’s better to put things aside for another day.
Think about that load of laundry I was planning to do. I’d told myself I had to do the laundry that day. But did I really? There’s rarely a time when laundry can’t wait one more day. And that broken phone? Could I live without a working landline? Yes! I’ve got email and texting (I text from my laptop). In fact, I texted the important people in my life and told them that if they wanted to reach me in the next few days, they should call me on my cell phone. That took care of that.
So, re-prioritizing can be a crucial step in being nice to yourself.
Third, pamper yourself.
Obviously, with the plumbing backed up, a warm bath was out of the question. But there were other ways I could pamper myself. The key here is not to make demands on yourself when the day is already a challenge, so I made myself a treat to eat and then lay down on the bed for a while and did nothing but listen to an audiobook I was in the middle of. I was loving both the book and the narrator, which made the experience doubly enjoyable.
If we put our minds to it, we can find ways to pamper ourselves—a favorite TV show or piece of music, a cuddle with a pet, or a cuppa whatever-your-favorite-hot-drink-is.
My wish for all of you is that right now, no matter what kind of day you’re having, you begin to treat yourself as kindly as you treat the people you love the most in your life.
Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.