I used to think of toughness as one of my greatest virtues. I found a strange thrill in the way people underestimated me, a somewhat petite woman with a sunny disposition, not realizing the lengths I could push myself to if needed.
Carry that absurdly heavy countertop up three flights of stairs by myself? Sure!
Stay up until 4am for two weeks straight to finish my first-year design portfolio? Absolutely.
Keep doing 10-hour days of field research while suffering from a nasty case of the flu? You better believe it.
Until a coworker found me curled up in a ball on the floor of the client’s restroom, my body literally refusing to continue.
At that time, the idea of being gentle with myself sounded a lot like weakness — a cop-out. Being tough was so important to me because it was how I had survived the darkest days of my childhood. And yet, at a certain point, the toughness that had helped me push through adversity was limiting my ability to live a full life.
I lived in cycles of busyness and burnout, saying yes to everything and pushing myself past the point of my reserves and then feeling completely broken for days or weeks at a time. I felt guilty any time I relaxed. So I filled my vacations and weekends with work (like taking work to the nail salon). Which made it impossible to be truly present with my partner and friends. I had impossibly high standards. And was constantly feeling ashamed of how I’d failed to meet them. I wasted a ton of time and effort doing things the hard way because I felt like I was supposed to.
Perhaps worst of all, I took difficult situations at face value, never challenging the constraints I faced but instead “making it work” until I was completely worn out. While my husband would look at a situation and say, “Why don’t you ask for more time?” or “Is all that work really necessary?”, I would insist that nothing could be changed and continue to push through. Later, I would find out that I could’ve made the situation much easier. And that all that toughness was not only unnecessary, but burned up energy that could’ve been spent on creative pursuits, or purely for joy.
12 Ways to be Gentle With Yourself
If toughness is a survival skill, gentleness is a thriving skill. And they’re not mutually exclusive. Being gentle with yourself doesn’t mean shying away from hard things. When we learn to be gentle, we allow ourselves to recover from stress, enjoy our lives, and connect deeply with those around us. Being gentle also helps us access parts of ourselves that may be restricted when we feel that life is something we have to push through. Who am I, I came to wonder, when I believe the world is not a series of trials to be endured, but a series of delights to be discovered? Being gentle with myself unlocked the permission to see more benevolence and light in both myself and the world around me. And ultimately, it paid dividends when it came to my mental health.
Could you benefit from being gentler in your life? Here are some questions to ask:
- Do you avoid taking vacations or regularly work through the weekend?
- Do you believe an accomplishment isn’t worth as much if you didn’t have to grind or sacrifice for it?
- Do you deny yourself pleasure if you feel you haven’t “earned” it?
- Do you have a harsh inner critic who says things that you would never say to someone else?
- Do you try to do most things yourself so you can avoid asking for help?
- Does self-care seem silly or frivolous to you?
- Do you spread yourself too thin because you don’t want to say no to others?
- Do you periodically reach a breaking point where you are forced to rest due to ill health or exhaustion?
If you said yes to three or more of the questions on this list, you could probably benefit from practicing more gentleness in your day to day. Here are some ways to do just that.
forgive yourself for a past mistake
We all make mistakes, and ideally we learn from them. But when we’re tough on ourselves, we often rehash those mistakes over and over, torturing ourselves by thinking of all the things we should’ve or could’ve done. This is a form of self-punishment. While it might feel like it’s driving the lesson home, in fact it’s just keeping you mired in shame.
To be more gentle, you can acknowledge the mistake (and apologize to anyone who was hurt, if appropriate), and then forgive yourself. Remember that mistakes help us learn to do better in the future. And then focus your energy on what you could change going forward. Letting go of a past mistake can help you practice self-forgiveness so that it comes more naturally to you in the future.
talk to your inner child
One of the most common and insidious ways we internalize toughness is through harsh self-talk. For many of us, this began as a defense mechanism. Because rehearsing criticism internally helped prepare us for criticism from others. Yet in reality, people rarely say anything to us that’s as brutal as our inner critics. And we almost never are as cruel to others as we are to ourselves.
Breaking the cycle of harsh self-talk and building self-compassion can be difficult. One strategy that has worked for me is to reframe self-criticism as if I were talking to a child. Would I shame a child for showing up too early to a party? Would I say, “Gosh, you are so stupid, you never get anything right!” No, I would say, “Whoops! I guess you read the invitation wrong. This is embarrassing! I wonder how you can make the best of it?”
find your yes
If you tend to spread yourself too thin, then learning to have better boundaries is an important tool in your gentleness arsenal. A gentle day isn’t one that’s overscheduled, rushing between commitments, with no time left for yourself. Gentleness requires space and time. Yet saying no doesn’t always feel like a gentle practice.
The truth is that every no also contains a yes. When you say no to someone else, you’re saying yes to yourself. If you never consider what your “yeses” are, then saying no can feel like disappointing others, being selfish, or not being strong enough to handle it all. But when you know what’s really important to you, saying no is an act of protection.
So if a slow, gentle morning is a yes for you, then it’s easier to say no to someone who wants to “pick your brain” at 8am. If you need a gentle Saturday night after a hard week, then dragging yourself to three different friends’ parties is a no — and it doesn’t mean you don’t love them. (For more tips on setting boundaries and saying no, check out this post.)
build in margin
I used to be proud of how much I packed into my days. In my single girl years, I often started a Sunday with yoga, then brunch with a friend. I’d take a few hours to bang out a blog post in the afternoon, run some errands, then meet a friend for cocktails and a museum, following it up with a dinner date if I could squeeze it in. But the reality is that I lived my life with very little margin. If one thing went off schedule, I was a frenetic mess, letting down not only my friends, but also myself.
What used to seem like wasted time I now call margin. It’s the space around things that gives you room when a meeting runs long, when an essay takes twice as long to write as you anticipated, when you have a fight with your best friend and need space to process, when you get sick, when your period comes early and you feel like crap, or when it is a gorgeous day and you simply can’t stand being inside another minute.
Margin gives you space to be gentler with your calendar, your to do list, with the people you love, and with yourself.
Move at your natural pace
I love this notion, shared by Diego Perez via Threads:
The simplest thing you can do for your mental health: Move at your natural speed.
Don’t feel rushed by the people around you.
Take your time responding to texts and emails.
Everything doesn’t need an immediate solution.
Don’t let technology boss you around.Diego Perez (@yung_Pueblo)
False urgency puts us through the wringer. Rediscovering our natural pace creates space to reflect and helps us cultivate a gentler relationship to time.
give yourself permission to stop
After giving birth to G, I struggled for nearly two years with pelvic pain that made it impossible to run. I had never actually really liked running, but now that I couldn’t do it I was incredibly bummed out. So I sought out pelvic floor therapy, and began a program to rebuild my ability to run.
Immediately, I realized that this was one situation I would not be able to push my way through. My program consisted of running for one minute and walking for two, and even that was challenging at first. I had to listen carefully to my body and stop at any sign of pain. Slowly, I built up to five and then ten minutes of running, and eventually settled around 20-22 minute runs.
This was so different than the way I had learned to exercise, through competitive sports in high school, where coaches were always yelling at us to go harder, to push past our limits. Instead, I was actively giving myself permission to stop when it didn’t feel good. And as I rediscovered running in this incredibly gentle way, I discovered that it was really fun. So even after I recovered, I started a practice of running only as long as I was enjoying it. Sometimes that means I stop halfway, and walk the rest of the route. But most days, I notice that giving myself permission to stop means that I end up going the full time. I no longer feel like I’m dragging myself through the run. And end up enjoying it instead of it feeling like a chore.
Try intuitive eating
One of the ways many of us have learned to be harsh with ourselves is through diet. Restrictive diets can be a way of maintaining control when things in life feel out of control. And, in a society that values thinness, dieting has been framed as a virtuous act of self-mastery rather than an internalized form of repression.
In the same way that giving yourself permission to stop an activity that doesn’t feel good helps you reconnect with your body in a gentle way, intuitive eating can be a tool for a healthier, more relaxed approach to nutrition. Intuitive eating is essentially a practice of tuning in to your hunger and fullness cues, learning to distinguish physical and emotional hunger, and rejecting hard and fast eating rules in favor of honoring your body’s needs in a given moment.
Wear comfortable shoes
Gentleness begins with the body. I spent a lot of my life cramming my feet into high heels because I felt that it made me look more powerful or attractive. Toughing it out through the pain of my shoes made me feel strong. When in fact it limited my mobility and put me at risk for injury.
During the pandemic, I stopped wearing stilettos and rarely wear heels of any kind anymore. Being gentle with my feet is a reminder that I don’t need to torture my body to be stylish (and that any definition of style that involves physical pain is misguided at best).
Your version might be loose-fitting pants, or roomy dresses. Or choosing clothes in your real size instead of the number you’re “supposed” to fit into. It might mean ditching underwire bras or thong underwear. Whatever it looks like, comfort can be a powerful reminder to treat your body with the tenderness it deserves.
Let yourself enjoy what you enjoy
I once dated a guy who loved opera. I really liked dressing up, having champagne at the theater, and filing into those plush velour seats. But once the actual opera started? I couldn’t wait to leave. I tried to get into it because it seemed like a classy thing I should be into. But at the end of the day, I was much happier with a romcom on the sofa.
We expend a lot of effort trying to like things that other people like: the indie band our friends think is cool, the thousand page biography our boss recommended. And while it’s great to try new things and expand your horizons, there’s a gentle freedom in letting yourself love what you love — whether that’s top 40 radio or a page-turning mystery that would never make a “critic’s choice” list.
befriend a hedonist
Do you tend to restrict yourself from certain pleasures? For example, do you put off taking vacations or feel that a spa day would be a wasteful indulgence? If so, you might benefit from having a friend who allows themselves pleasure without guilt.
While at first it may be tempting to judge your pleasure-seeking friend’s choices, notice how their shameless enjoyment enriches their life. Let some of that enjoyment rub off on you. Get curious about how someone you love can have such different attitudes toward pleasure. Ask about how they came to see pleasure as a form of nurture, rather than a form of indulgence.
What I’ve learned from spending time with people who truly enjoy themselves is that people can be both serious and pleasure-loving at the same time. I’ve also become aware of how not having a super-doting, nurturing mother figure meant that I didn’t viscerally understand that power of self-care as an adult. The toughness and self-sufficiency I’d celebrated made it hard for me to see just how much I needed rest and tenderness too.
One way we try to prove our toughness is by slogging through tedious chores or resisting the “easy way.” But I hate to break it to you: there’s no medal for suffering through unpleasant tasks. If you can outsource or share a task, consider it! If not, look at adding a sweetener.
A sweetener is something enjoyable that you add in to an unpleasant task to make it more fun. For example, you might listen to a romance novel on audiobook while doing yardwork, or watch your favorite show while folding laundry. Maybe you treat yourself to a new spice once a month to make cooking dinner more enjoyable. Maybe you put on 80s tunes and dance it out while cleaning the house. (Find more ideas in our post on making chores more joyful.)
let it be easy
When toughness is a part of our identity, it can lead us to resist ease, taking on unnecessary work simply to avoid the appearance of being lazy. But after years of doing this, and resenting those who seemed to have it easier, I’ve learned there’s no shame in taking the easy way out. Taking the easy way out of something you don’t want to do can leave you more energy for the things that matter most.
A few ways I’ve learned to take it easy:
- Not cooking certain dishes from scratch when my family likes the prepared version from the local gourmet store just as much
- Letting the laundry pile up on weeks when we don’t have help
- Putting pots and pans (no, not cast iron) in the dishwasher
- Getting up and going for a walk when I’m stuck on a project, rather than forcing myself to sit at my desk and think my way through it
- Choosing clothes that don’t need to be ironed, or that I don’t mind being a little wrinkled
- Doing one less thing for the holidays than I intended
- Using automated services to remove busy work from my business
- Deciding to read a book during my toddler’s nap rather than organizing the house
For more ideas on how to embrace ease, see here.
As I started to allow more gentleness in my life, I began to realize that my fixation on toughness was in part the manifestation of a worldview that venerates struggle and sacrifice as sources of meaning. The mantras of this worldview are things like “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” “nothing good comes easy,” “struggle builds character,” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I once believed that this worldview helped me stay strong in a brutal world. But I’ve come to see it as a kind of violence that we enact on ourselves and others.
It’s the worldview that justifies hustle culture, that believes young boys need to dealt with harshly to “toughen them up,” that tells us we should be grateful for our trauma because it “made us who we are,” that tells marginalized people and those in poverty that they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because life is just unfair — and that this is somehow a benefit to them, rather than a hurdle in their path.
But there’s also a worldview that sees joy as an equally important source of meaning in life. This view recognizes that every life comes with its fair share of burdens. But that we don’t need to add to them unnecessarily. That while struggle builds character, joy builds resilience. That your ability to deny pleasure is not a virtue, but a rejection of your humanity. That life is not something merely to be survived, but something to be thoroughly, richly lived.
And that gentleness is not weakness, but a way to make space for greater self-awareness, creativity, and love. Which in this world is a source of great power and strength.