Being Gentle to Ourselves

September 4, 2013


By Amy Hackworth. Image: vintage Laura Ashley via The House That Lars Built.

In the past several weeks, we’ve talked about supporting our friends as they go through the hardest things. Some sorrows are deeply serious, but others are simply the sad moments of life. It might be the bittersweet milestone of kindergarten that’s got us down for a bit or a fractured friendship or an injury. Or just one of those inexplicable days when the odds seem decidedly against us.

For most women I know, a typical response to a sad day would be to soldier on, though that’s probably not the advice most of us would offer our friends in their times of sadness. I find I’m often disappointed in myself when I’m not feeling up to par; I feel frustrated and wish for the emotional energy to get off that rocky road as quickly as possible. When I’m feeling down, I often ask more of myself than I would on other days.

A few months ago, when my dear friend Meg shared a challenging day on Instagram, one of her friends suggested gentleness. “Be gentle with yourself,” Meg’s wise friend counseled, and Meg responded with appreciation, and the realization that gentleness was exactly what she needed. I’d had a similar experience — yes, that’s what I need! — when a friend offered the same idea to me a few months earlier, and the two experiences got me thinking about how this simple approach of being gentle might be difficult to apply to ourselves, though — again — we’d readily suggest it to our friends.

Why it doesn’t come easier is a bit of a mystery, but I feel sure it’s a skill, or perhaps an art, that we can learn if we’ll let ourselves. Do you know the book Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy? It’s a treasure published in the mid-90s, and author Sarah Ban Breathnach shares a pretty great idea for treating ourselves right when the world seems wrong. She calls it the “comfort drawer,” and suggests a designated drawer, lined with pretty paper and good smells, where you can “stockpile small indulgences throughout the year.” Her comfort drawer holds things like chocolate truffles (wise), bath salts, a satin eye mask, a personal scrapbook, unusual teas, good magazines. We know those rough days are coming, so why not be prepared with a cache of soul soothing luxuries?

Do you have the equivalent of a comfort drawer? What are your tried-and-true methods for dealing with personal sadness? Your favorite comforting indulgences? And are you as good at being gentle with yourself as you are with others?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jennifer September 4, 2013 at 11:39 pm

A comfort drawer is such a lovely idea. Mine would definitely hold chocolate, tea, the magazines I never have time to finish, a cd of old beloved songs, etc. Now to find am empty drawer…


2 Nadia September 4, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Oh, how I needed this reminder today. Yesterday, when my son woke up weepy and a bit down, I sent a little note into his teacher (gotta love having a friend as your kids teacher!) and made sure he had a special treat in his lunch box. This morning, when I woke up feeling much the same way, I berated myself for not hitting the gym, for being lazy and for not starting my day off the “right” way. I need to learn to give myself the treatment I give my kids, and start silencing the negative talk that has a tendency to creep in. But, I could never keep chocolate in a drawer “for emergencies.” It would be gone in a day. :-)


3 Sarah September 5, 2013 at 3:00 am

I had a notebook with quotes that have touched me through reading all kind of different books… but there were sad quotes too.
I started making a uplifting quotes notebook…
I try to remember that things are temporary too… “this too shall pass…”
Pictures of happy moments, uplifing music and a gratitude notebook…


4 Lauren September 5, 2013 at 6:01 am

This is such a great idea. I try really hard to be kind to myself on hard days instead of pushing it, but it’s still difficult. But I try to stop and remind myself that the only person who expects me to be a super hero is me, so I’m not letting anyone else down. That helps.


5 Tracy September 5, 2013 at 7:15 am

One great lesson from my mother-in-law, who I call my icing on the cake because I love her so much, was the value of a mental health day. She was a public school teacher like me, but with many more years of experience. She helped me see that I was a better teacher, a kinder person, and generally happier all around when I could schedule one entire day to just do whatever nourished me from the inside out–good food, good rest, good “input” (music/books/magazines), outdoor time, maybe even some time at a salon. After a day of rejuvenation, I would be good to go again.
After I stopped teaching to stay home with my children, I’ve found it especially helpful to schedule day-long “retreats”, especially just before my husband will be traveling for a week. If I can take some time before he leaves to nourish my soul, then I have much more to give when I am single-parenting for the time of his trip. He enthusiastically supports this because it means he comes home to a wife who may be tired and in need of more rest, but not crabby and angry.
I love the idea of a special drawer! I’m going to get right on that! But I agree with another commenter, chocolate would never last! Maybe a special bag of trail mix with my favorites?
In the meantime, I’ve learned that being gentle on myself on the hard days is, as you say, an art that needs honing over time. A made bed, for me, becomes like a sanctuary, but I can tolerate and even go to sleep with dirty dishes in the sink if it’s been one of those days! Knowing what household chores help me feel more balanced and peaceful, and which ones are just chores has helped me know what to just let go of on certain days and what to do no matter what. Simple sandwiches and a cheery dinner conversation helps much more than a lovely cooked meal with a stretched-too-thin mom at the table who doesn’t talk for not wanting to snap at someone…
Finally, does anyone keep a “pretty corner” in your home? Maybe it’s because I am the only female in this family of a husband, three boys, and me. But I keep one little chair, with pretty things all around it, off in a corner by a window, and it’s pretty much known as mom’s chair. When I need to just catch my breath, refocus my day, see some beauty, the chair is the place for me!


6 Jillian September 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Tracy, You have a lot of great ideas (I am a big fan of retreat days! and I agree the chocolate wouldn´t last long in my drawer), but I *love* the idea of a “pretty corner”! Except for my husband, I have a house full of girls, but a pretty corner that could withstand all the books, toys, instruments, school material, etc., that is strewn around sounds pretty amazing! Hmmm, off to ponder where I could put one!


7 Tracy September 5, 2013 at 7:24 am

Yes, one more idea. If you don’t have a copy of The Blue Day Book, I highly recommend it. You can find it in the greeting card aisle at most stores. It really is quite impossible to make it through the book with comforting words and hilarious pictures of animals that accompany them without cracking at least a bit of a smile. It has moved with me through 4 countries and back again, and everyone that I’ve shared it with agrees that it won’t make you forget your worries, but it does help you find a better perspective for facing them. It could be a great book to slip into the comfort drawer.


8 Nicole September 5, 2013 at 8:17 am

There are days when I simply have to take to my bed. Both of my children are in school, so when I’m deeply blue I take a sick day from work and go to bed. I read or watch tv and simply be with my sadness and myself. It’s helped me through many difficult transition times. xo


9 Barchbo September 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

I feel so lucky that I learned that I was more useful to others when I take care of myself before I got married and had kids! My middle school students often asked me what made me so happy on my good days so I just got more of what made me happy in my life:
- the gym!
- Chinese food
- a glass of wine with a cherished friend
- quiet time in the morning
- a really REALLY good book that feels like an old friend
- encouraging other people

A conversation I had with a friend last weekend led us to this conclusion on the topic: if women were kinder to each other maybe we wouldn’t need so much from ourselves. One of the things I love about this space, Gabby – it’s about comfort, encouragment, warmth, and all of things that are best about being in community. Thank you! XOXO


10 Maike September 5, 2013 at 8:30 am

For me it was a big deal to find out that it is simply okay to feel down. Or disappointed. Or frustrated. And more: if you just allow yourself to feel like that, maybe with a good reason or maybe without one, most times, the feeling just floats through you, followed by more welcome moods. What made it hard for me to deal with these feeling, was that I didn’t realize how natural they are and how they make your life complete. And how you get stuck with them by blocking them out.


11 Amy September 5, 2013 at 9:35 am

You are SO right! Thank you for sharing your words!


12 Amy September 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

I really loved this post. I really needed it. Just last night, feeling heartbroken, I turned to my tried and true gentle resources.

My “comfort drawer”:
- Going for a drive
- Talking to family
- Hugs
- Heart-to-heart with a friend
- Polynesian dance (over and over again until my body is sore)
- Making a gratitude list
- Prayer
- Choosing to have hope
- Good music
- Cleaning
- Going for a walk
- Painting my nails
- A long shower, tears in solitude
- Sleep
- Relaxation/Meditation CDs
- Treating myself to a new paper product (notebook, journal, cards, etc.)

Being gentle with yourself is really healing. I think I can be more intentional with my efforts from now on. Thank you for the reminder!


13 Gia September 5, 2013 at 10:56 am

I love this idea and know many friends that have “comfort shelves” in their kitchens filled with snacks and treats for those stressful days and moments that just aren’t going their way. It’s always discussed as a secret place, away from the kids or the partner or society. I really appreciate you bringing this secret place to the forefront. Sadness, blues, bad days, are all a part of what we experience as humans and I love that today’s post is focused on self care. Thank you, thank you.
My “comfort drawer” is not a drawer at all. Like some of the others above, I have places and things I do that help get me through those days. I have always lived near the ocean, so on really hard days I try to find my way there. Taking off my shoes and putting my feet in the sand, staring out at the water and just having some moments to breath often helps. When it’s stormy or wet out, even just sitting in the car, watching the tumultuous waves crashing is enough of a release to feel a little better as I head back home.
I also turn to my camera. I try to find light in even a dark day by taking photos. Sometimes they are of people, but most often the photos are of a bit of light, reflecting off of something stuck to the sidewalk or coming through the leaves of a tree. If I’m not completely down I will turn the camera on myself and make funny faces into the lens – as many as I can come up with – and then play them back on the digital screen. Some of my favorite images of me, are the goofy ones I’ve taken in these moments, or the time I screamed and took my picture. A still of me getting out all those energies or frustrations.
Lastly, a dark movie theatre, with a bag of popcorn and a soda. Neither are something I eat outside the theatre but a special treat I save for watching something silly, or meaningful on a mid day break, taking a moment to escape outside whatever is bothering me. I love movies and stories and often after a matinee I feel like I just took a mini vacation – ready to face the world again.


14 MorticiA September 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm

With two jobs and a family, a day off would add to my stress. I like to play Christmas music (no matter the time of year) or other music that makes me happy to try to take away my sad. I’ll make a nice hot chocolate, and then close my eyes, listen to the music, and give myself 5 minutes and then try to get through the rest of the day. If I can get to the gym, I let it all out in a group exercise class with great music and other people. Then I try to find someone to do something for. Thinking of other people helps me to put my own struggles into perspective.


15 Gia September 6, 2013 at 8:12 am

I love the idea of a 5 minute mini Christmas. Great idea!


16 Justin September 5, 2013 at 9:27 pm

I totally want a comfort drawer. I don’t know what I’d put in there other than the truffles. Probably a CD or two. I’m going to start working on this. It’s a great idea. Thanks!


17 Christy@SweetandSavoring September 7, 2013 at 6:08 am

What a wonderful post, Amy! I love it so much that I linked to it in my blog post yesterday :)
It’s so nice reading what everyone’s idea of comfort is. This stuff needs to be talked about more, and I’m glad to see the topic of personal sadness and down time on such a popular blog!
I must say, the picture at the top is pretty appealing to me- when I want to hide away from the world, a big bed with lots of pillows and books, with a bedside table of cookies and hot cocoa, sounds absolutely lovely. My husband sometimes refers to my ‘nest’ in the winter, when I get depressed, and it’s true- I suppose I create that kind of space to feel safe somehow, to enclose myself in warmth and comfort until I’m ready to emerge.
I’d never heard of Sarah Van Breathnach before, but thank you for the introduction. Her comfort drawer sounds lovely. I like the idea of yummy smelling things like lavender, pretty vintage handkerchiefs, definitely my favorite tea blend, and love notes from friends.
Hugs to everyone on this fall-ish morning!


18 Ariel September 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Needing this today. Beautiful post, as always, Amy!


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