Self-care is the word du jour. If the pandemic has taught us anything it's that we need to take care of ourselves. For me this awareness came quickly, but discovering what truly constituted self-care took a little bit longer. It was a process of trial and error which has led me to the concept of KIRM. It’s my own little word which I use to describe my new approach to my inner voice. That inner voice hasn’t always served me well, and in the past has been my self-care nemesis. Now I have KIRMness as my superpower. I happily share it with you.
The word “kirm” first popped into my head when debating with a colleague whether the concept of “kind and firm” (a Positive Discipline principle) was a polarity of ideas. I insisted that being kind and firm was not a polarity, it was in fact one and the same act. I reasoned that the Positive Discipline programme recommends parents are kind and firm at the same time. It’s not about balancing permissiveness against punitive measures; it's about respectfully (without lecture, guilt or judgement) expressing a boundary that can’t be crossed or an expectation that must be met. So, I argued, teachers must see “kind and firm” as one action - ‘kirm’.
Since then I have thought a lot about what being ‘kirm’ could do if I apply it to myself. What does being ‘kirm’ look like as a personal mindset?
‘Kind and firm’ from a teachers’ perspective is about holding children to boundaries while showing an empathetic connection. It occured to me that the same approach would work on my own inner dialogue. I wondered if I could be ‘kirm’ with the inner child that really doesn't want to get up in the morning, and the nagging imposter who is currently telling me this blog is no good. Being a teacher, I’m primed to find an acronym for everything. After creating ‘kirm’ as a way of explaining kindness and firmness at the same time, the four letters simply sang to me: Kind, Insistent, Regular, Meaningful. KIRM is my new acronym for the way I intend to speak to myself.
‘Kind’ is something many of us have only recently learnt to be towards ourselves. For many years I took the permissive-vs-punitive approach with myself. I thought I was being ‘kind’ when I put aside the activities I needed to do for my long term goals (like fitness or research) and instead spent time on netflix and a glass of wine. I would create expectations that were way too high, work one or two hours at the start of the week, and then the rest of the week I would give myself time-off as ‘a treat’. The result was I never met my goals. This was not kind. Then when I realised my ‘treat’ was actually hurtful, I would punish myself with guilt and self-loathing. I would even feel a little resentment against the world, blaming fate for the ‘hard work’ I was ‘forced’ to do. To relieve myself from all these negative emotions I would again permit indulgence. A very unhelpful loop.
Now I am kind: I am realistic about what I can achieve, forgiving when I slip up or miss a goal, and I am persistent in the things that I know will bring me long-term joy. That’s where ‘insistent’ comes in. The ‘insistence’ of being KIRM does not mean being ‘hard’ - it doesn’t mean telling yourself you ‘have to’ or else you will fail, it means reminding yourself that you ‘want to’ because you have a long term goal. When I am insistent with myself I don’t feel the need to resist (as I often used to do when I was being ‘hard’ on myself) because I know my insistence comes from a place of love for my current self and respect for the long-term vision of who I wish to be. The previous cycle of permissiveness and punishment did not do that - it indulged then cursed the current me and abandoned the future me.
The previous cycle was also erratic. Now I know enough about the brain to understand the importance of being ‘regular’ in my kind insistence. I have found out the hard way how long it takes to break ingrained habits of thought. Through experience and research into brain theory, I know that to replace my old habit of flip-flopping between self-permissiveness and self-punishment, I first had to become aware of what changes I wanted to make, secondly avoid cues associated with the old habit, then plan my new course of KIRMness and repeat it consistently for as long as it took to build the first habit. This is not the easy bit. It takes a lot of energy to catch yourself in the act, analyse the context and consciously plan a different thought, all while trying to resist past patterns. It’s difficult and it is well worth the effort.
What makes this easier is that every time I try, I remember to be ‘meaningful’. All my efforts at changing my self-talk are for a purpose. I have finally realised that I am going to have to live with myself for a very long time, and I would like to be happy with my talkative 24hr-7day companion. This realisation led me to think through a solid plan for my future and clearly define who I need to be for that plan to succeed. I need to be mentally, physically and emotionally strong to achieve the lengthy to-do list which will see me move out of full time work and into my dream lifestyle of digital nomading.
I am a year into my three-year plan and so-far-so-good. I first applied the KIRM approach to my physical wellbeing. This was the perfect starting point to ensure I had the health and energy needed to work on other areas of my life. By realistically focusing on only one area of my life, I also learnt more about the strategies and conditions that help me change. After one year I have significantly increased energy levels, I have an exercise routine that is ideally suited to me (quick, practical and fun), and I no longer waste precious emotional energy upset at my own body shape. There were many different components to achieving this, and lots of ups and downs along the way, so being KIRM with myself was crucial. Reflecting back, the combination of kind, insistent, regular and meaningful really does sum up the long term approach needed to make sustainable change.
My current challenge is the imposter syndrome that tempts me to procrastinate on my writing goals. Here’s the kind of KIRM conversation I have internally at 5:30 each morning when I need to yank myself out of bed to work on this blog post: “I understand you are battling doubts about the impact of your writing and I insist you get out of bed and just write for 30 minutes. That’s all you need to do: you don’t have to write a Pulitzer, you just have to write. It will help you build the habit of overcoming your doubt, make it easier to write regularly in the future, which will then improve your writing and lead to the career you dream of.” Thanks to my KIRM self-talk, the mornings I hit the snooze button are becoming less frequent and, more importantly, are not laced with guilt.
The worst thing a wellbeing blog can do is set you up for failure by promising instant change through a fancy-packaged magic bean. KIRM is your fix for that too. Being regularly, insistently kind necessitates being forgiving and realistic with yourself. For all my KIRMness I still have bad weeks. I have learnt through reflection that there are two major culprits: a bad night’s sleep, and the “random admin of daily life” (like tax returns and broken windscreens). These things lower my energy and take me away from the things that bring me joy.
My response is to ‘kindly’ restore my energy by focusing back on the ‘meaning’. A conversation with my husband about our dual life goals and visualisation of the lifestyle we are planning, these help bring me perspective. After all, the extra work I am putting in is to create a lifestyle of increased joy. It seems a bit silly to sacrifice all joy now to create joy in the future. When I choose joy as part of my life’s meaning, I can schedule in the movie and merlot without guilt. Instead I can view these choices with curiosity: as a prompt for reflection and learning. What can I do to improve my sleep? How can I delegate or plan for the random admin of daily life? What would happen if I set the timer and wrote for 30 mins before opening the wine tonight? It will be exciting to find out.
Postscript: Did you notice the ‘and’? It’s another brain-hack I learned from Positive Discipline. I am being extremely deliberate in my use of the word ‘but’ and making sure I only use it when I want to make a significant contrast between the two phrases. When ‘but’ is used to connect two part of a sentence, the first phrase becomes less trustworthy or is negated entirely. It’s to do with the coloquial connotations of the word that have built up over centuries. Sometimes we don't even consciously register that when we hear the word ‘but’ our brains devalue everything that was said before it. By using ‘and’ instead of ‘but,’ the first clause of the sentence isn’t minimised. Both clauses are equal in value. Try re-reading all the sentences where I have underlined and, replacing it with ‘but’. See the difference? When I use ‘and’ the first part of the sentence stands on its own as valid and important, meaning my self-talk remains kind and insistent. For more examples check out this blog from Mary Catherine Pflug.