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Do you ever notice the way you talk to yourself? Most of us are acutely aware of the tone we use when talking to others, but do we do ourselves the same kindness?
We constantly live in our own head. When we’re nervous, we try to talk ourselves off the ledge; when we’re confused, we have an internal dialogue to clarify our thinking; and when we’re annoyed, we’ll make internal commentary on whatever is bothering us.
Since all of this is so automatic and silent, we often forget to be mindful of the kinds of things we tell ourselves. From my own experience in therapeutic spaces, both as a participant and as a facilitator, people can be surprised when they realize that the messages they tell themselves are often untrue or unconstructive.
I realized this when trying to better understand my own behavior. I kept hanging out with people who made me sad or treated me unkindly, telling myself: “you’ll be fine, Makeena—you’ve lived through worse.”
It wasn’t until I actually slowed down and carefully listened to what I was saying that it occurred to me that my words were a) pretty rude and b) not true. What if a friend was in a similar position where people mistreated her? Would I really just tell her to stick around because she’ll “get over it”?
The answer was: probably not. Rather, I would be much more prone to having a conversation with my friend about why she kept putting herself in harm’s way. I would gently help her decide to take care of her heart and stop making things more difficult for herself. I would be aware of the fact that when we continuously put ourselves at risk, we don’t always bounce back stronger: but we can often create negative patterns that are hard to unlearn. I wouldn’t rush her through her feelings or encourage her to ignore them, so why would I do that to myself?
In order to address the especially stiff, harsh, or unforgiving attitude we direct towards ourselves, we have to unearth a few layers.
Unlearning Unkind Attitudes
When thinking about this phenomenon, one of the first things that I had to admit was the fact that I wasn’t actually always nice to the people around me. In the hypothetical situation above, I imagined that I wouldn’t judge my friend for staying close to hurtful people, but this is not entirely realistic. How many times had a friend come to me for advice and in lieu of a comforting response, judgment crept in? How many times had I felt criticized by a friend when I just needed a listening ear?
Maybe one of the reasons we have trouble being kind to ourselves is that we struggle to show kindness towards each other. Many times, we hold even higher standards for our own behavior than for others’, so if we judge others for not being perfect, we inevitably end up judging ourselves too.
Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship… This goal excelleth every other goal, and this aspiration is the monarch of all aspirations. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 288.
Sometimes we don’t have hurtful intentions, but we hurt each other in the process of just trying to be honest, to knock some sense into someone, or to look out for someone else’s best interests. The challenge is not that we need to change our intent, since many times we are trying to be helpful, but to practice crafting our words to be both honest and gentle. We must find ways to make our honest words soothe and not sting.
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15.
The saying “a wise man knows that he knows nothing at all” comes to mind as I reflect on this quote. I wonder if we would speak more kindly if we relied on the wisdom that we don’t ever fully know what’s best for someone else. We can offer perspective, but it is not on us to impose our values, only to understand each other.
The Harsh Reality of the World Around Us
Our harsh behavior can be tied to the harshness of the world around us. The Baha’i writings state:
The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. –Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 286
It doesn’t take much to realize that the world is not united. Humanity struggles in many domains, as The Universal House of Justice, the supreme administrative body of the Baha’i Faith, stated in a letter to the Baha’is of the world:
Today, many of the dominant currents in societies everywhere are pushing people apart, not drawing them together. Even as global poverty of the most extreme form has decreased, political and economic systems have enabled the enrichment of small coteries with grossly exorbitant wealth—a condition that fuels fundamental instability in world affairs. The interactions of the individual citizen, governing institutions, and society as a whole are often fraught, as those arguing for the primacy of one or the other show more and more intransigence in their thinking… And the will to engage in international collective action… has been cowed, assailed by resurgent forces of racism, nationalism, and factionalism. –The Universal House of Justice, 18 January 2019, p. 2.
Though this description may sound dark, Baha’is also believe that with time, people will inevitably recognize that humanity is one. In fact, they are already becoming more aware and taking steps to make reality reflect this truth. Again, the Universal House of Justice reminded us:
For the first time in history it is possible for everyone to view the entire planet, with all its myriad diversified peoples, in one perspective. World peace is not only possible but inevitable. – The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace.
Our role is to strive to contribute to the more efficient and painless path to our unity. As we strive for this, we learn to be kinder to each other, and in turn kinder to ourselves.
Making Time to Reflect
If we don’t actually designate time and effort, it is easy to go long spans of time without paying much attention to our mentality. How can we work out the kinks in the way we process the world if we don’t sit down to reflect on it?
… man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 34.
If more of us prioritized making time to listen to what is going on inside of our heads, we would be better equipped to catch unhealthy thoughts about who we are before they develop.
Taking the time and making the space to care for the internal conversation we have with ourselves is not something we can learn overnight. As we refine this part of who we are, we might more easily emanate love and kindness towards others. Self-care and kindness allow us to more effortlessly and effectively contribute to the world around us.