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What if… we prioritise kindness to self?

A photograph of beautiful white and pink blossom against the background of a bright blue sky

Today is World Mental Health Day. So I am delighted to bring to you this guest blog written by Sarah Tite, Director of Fundraising and Communications at the Mental Health Foundation. In it she shares a difficult time she experienced and how being kind to herself helped her to move forward.

At the heart of my work as a women’s leadership coach is believing that everything starts when we put our needs first, when we are kind to ourselves and listen to what our own bodies are telling us.

And this was never truer for me than when an incident at work last summer brought me to my knees. I was left feeling confused and upset but each day I showed up for work, and my team had no idea what I was going through. I had on a mask of ‘I’m fine’ but inside I was feeling anger, so powerful was this emotion it was physically stressful.

Emotional response

Have you ever felt an overwhelming emotional response to a situation? A conversation with a colleague or friend, being asked ‘could you just…’ or that moment when someone backs into the space you had your eye on?!

When we have feelings like anger, sadness, fear, hurt or guilt they can be felt physically in our body, and be quite overwhelming. Sometimes this stress response is vital. It acts as a little alarm bell to get our attention that something is going on. But if we ignore the emotion, don’t recognise it as an alarm bell and suppress it, over time it can contribute to a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.

Feeling myself blossom

I knew I had to act, to prioritise myself and show myself the kindness I was showing to my team. The catalyst to action was a simple observation by a friend who said, ‘you do not seem yourself’. No, I realised I was not.

I had stopped caring.

I was surviving rather than thriving.

Kindness to self for me was taking three weeks off from work during which time I slept, and I got outside each day to walk. I started to feel myself blossom. I am not saying the emotion of anger had gone but I was able to recognise it for what it was, a little alarm bell to put my own needs first.

If you find your emotions get the better of you maybe you could try one of the following to release them:

  • Getting outside, walking and taking conscious deep breaths
  • Dance out the emotion to your favourite music
  • Scream into a pillow, cushion or towel
  • Vigorous exercise
  • Meditation
  • Yoga

Looking after your own needs

Research undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation in 2020 found that nearly half (48%) of UK adults agreed that being kind to themselves has a positive impact on their mental health.

Can you think of a time, as I did, when you have led at work, at home or in your community when you were working flat out, exhausted, unable to get going in the morning and where every movement felt like you were living in slow motion?

Now compare this to the experience of leadership after a good nights’ sleep, after a well-deserved break or on a day when your journey to work was in the sunshine. They say prevention is better than cure, which is why I believe that our real power as leaders comes when we look after our needs first.

Three simple steps

A need is something that is necessary, something that is essential to live a healthy life, and can be as individual as we are. For me the things that help me feel ok, not blissful but just healthy and fine include seven hours sleep, eating three healthy meals, walking in nature, reading my book, and doing an exercise class each day.

Here are three simple steps to help you identify your own needs:

  1. Brainstorm your basic needs – things like sleep, fluids, moving and food.
  2. Now add the things like walking, dancing, a lovely meal with friends, family time, visiting a new place or quiet time alone. Things without which you don’t feel your best.
  3. Then for each of these, what does ‘meeting your need’ look like? i.e. is it exercise that gets your heart pumping every day or twice a week; is it quiet time every day for 30 mins or do you just need five minutes as you wake up?

Spending time thinking about and looking after my own needs, being kind to myself before I support or lead others is not selfish; it is, I believe, at the heart of good leadership. The vitality that comes from meeting my needs, means I can bring the energy to my day that will help the team to thrive.

Sarah is a mum, women’s leadership coach and has over 30 years in the charity sector starting as Fundraising Assistant at Coram. Today she is Director Fundraising and Communications at the Mental Health Foundation, where she introduced a whole organisation coaching programme that was piloted while the country was in lock down and rolled out to all staff a year later.

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