Exercises to strengthen emotional health
We are all familiar with the idea of taking good care of our bodies by working out, walking or running, doing yoga or dancing. We could apply the same principles to our mental health. Each month, we will publish one exercise designed to give a workout to your mind and heart. The intent of these exercises is to increase your mental and emotional stamina and flexibility. If you practice them regularly, you just might feel better.
In 1983 I had a vivid example of what it might be like to be friendly to myself. I was running a small business at the time and had taken the day off because I had the flu. My husband arrived home from work to find me getting dressed to go out. “Are you feeling better?” he asked. “No,” I groaned, ” I still feel sick but I called this meeting so I have to go.” He said, ” If Kathy (one of my employees) felt the way you do now, what would you say to her about going to the meeting?” That was easy … “I’d say, ‘You’re sick, stay in bed and we’ll fill you in on what happens later.” “So how about doing that for yourself,” he said. What a novel thought, to have expectations for myself that were in line with what I expected of friends. I could stay home and get well. I was flooded with relief. It was ok.
It starts at home. Begin by noticing how often you say what you should be doing. Then think of someone you love and want the best for; it might be a child, a friend, an elderly person. What would I say to this person if they were having my problem? Usually people respond to this question with a wish to help, giving words of comfort, appreciation and understanding. A friend might remind you that no one is perfect all the time.
So let’s say my friend is hurting because she is taking care of her beloved aged mother who is now cranky and demanding. She feels guilty because she snapped at her mom and just wants a day off from these difficult responsibilities. A good friend would empathize with her difficulties, listen to her feelings without judging her, and affirm her need to get help, perhaps even assisting her in finding some alternative caregivers so she could have a break.
Treating yourself like a friend means that you could empathize, listen, affirm and assist yourself. Acknowledge that your struggles are real, without judging yourself for making a mistake. Look actively for solutions. True friends will be caring enough to give honest feedback to illuminate our blind spots. They don’t just say we are always right, but add perspective. Being friendly to yourself is not a blank check for self indulgence. Rather it encourages us to be loving, forgiving and wise when meeting challenges.
Some things a friend might say
You can do it.
I am interested in your struggles and I want to know more about them.
Let’s go play.
I care about you and I worry about your drinking.
I trust you to find your way out of this problem.
You are worthy just as you are and don’t need to be better to justify your existence.
I like your humor, your quiet strength, the way you play the flute.
Many people have the mistaken belief that if they are harsh and set enormously high standards, they will be movitated to be better. Unfortunately, this unkindness to ourselves undermines our enthusiasm for living, leads to depression and a lack of fulfillment and sets us up for disappointment. Studies have shown that standards set unrealistically high, or lazily low, cause low self esteem. Standards for performance which involve some challenge, but are not unrealistically high, help us to move forward. One client of mine said she had found happiness close at hand when she lowered her standards and relaxed with things the way they were.
So… try talking to yourself the way a friend would. Stop bullying yourself. Do this once a day and your attitude will shift. You will find that the world is a friendlier place.
Lea Barrow is a marriage and family therapist working in Grass Valley. You can contact her by phone at (530) 575-5165 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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