What Does It Mean to Be Nice to Yourself?

For too many people, the very idea of not endlessly berating yourself sounds like an impossible fantasy.

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According to the many, many pseudo self-care experts out there, being nice to yourself means spending $125,000 on the 18k gold dumbbells they’re shilling, purchasing Psychic Vampire Repellent or maybe putting yourself through the very specific, flatulent hell of a coffee enema.

But according to most psychological experts, what being nice to yourself really means is loving yourself — not in a narcissistic way, but rather, in taking better care of you. Taking a relaxing bath instead of your usual brief shower every once in awhile; eating less unhealthy foods; exercising more; even training your brain (perhaps through cognitive-behavioral therapy) to not be so relentlessly cruel to yourself when you make a basic mistake.

To be clear, treating yourself with kindness isn’t carte blanche for being selfish. “Taking loving care of yourself is the opposite of being selfish,” points out Margaret Paul for MindBodyGreen. “In fact, it’s being responsible. When you learn to take care of yourself, to recognize your own feelings and needs and deal with them in the present moment, you feel full of love and good energy inside.”

If you’re thinking, “Sounds good, but I’m fundamentally not built to love myself,” you’re not alone. Human beings, explains Inc. writer Brenda Barbosa, are pretty much hardwired for negativity. “The negativity bias allows us to perceive danger and threat more easily,” she writes. “This bias was essential to our survival when we were trying to steer clear of saber tooth tigers.”

For many of us, then, it’s vital to take the time to rewire our brains (perhaps starting with taking a minute to understand that saber tooth tigers are actually extinct now, and maybe we can ease up a little). You ideally want to reach a point where you can treat yourself with kindness even when you feel like you’re really doing a bad job of everything. “The mental training of relating to ourselves with compassion begins with getting some distance from ourselves,” writes Marianna Pogosyan for Psychology Today. “Ask yourself: ‘What would I say to a dear friend in a situation like this, and how would I say it?’” And if it sounds messed up that we might have to imagine we’re talking to somebody else just in order to be able to say something nice, well, it kind of is. But whatever works, right?

Learning to comfort yourself, too, is important, which can be as straightforward as taking a nap or meditating. “You can comfort yourself with your caring words and gestures (putting your hand on your heart like you would embrace a friend),” Pogosyan continues.

Really, it all comes down to one simple — yet for some, utterly alien — concept: Valuing yourself. “Becoming aware of the ways you disrespect yourself through your thoughts, your speech, through how you feel and what you do, is the first step,” says clinical psychologist Amy Kim. “You have to start by seeing the way you devalue yourself.” This, she admits, isn’t always easy, which is why it helps to get assistance from an outside party. “It can be hard to separate emotions from facts,” says Kim. “A competent therapist can sort out fact from fiction, so you can sort out how to treat yourself differently. These aren’t easy things — they’re emotional.”

What can make self-compassion so difficult is the fact that you’ve likely spent a lifetime developing habitual ways of thinking and feeling, furrowing a groove of self-negativity that can feel impossible to climb out of. “This learned behavior, as a result of getting repeated so many times, can seem like a fact of your life,” says Kim. “We all have our blind spots — particularly men, since most men aren’t socialized or even encouraged to examine their feelings and thoughts.”

This latter point is why Kim believes that men suffer needlessly until the age of around 40, when they’re so depressed they (or at least some of them) finally seek out help. But Kim asks, “Why not understand yourself sooner? It just makes life easier.”