Last updated on January 15th, 2021
Don't you love acronyms? Those 5 or 7 or 10 letters that are supposed to guarantee that you will remember 5 or 7 or 10 steps to a better life?
No they don't work for me either. Five is already too many for me.
My favourite tool for wellbeing
So today I'm offering you just two letters, for two steps. They won't make the sun shine 24/7, but they can transform how you relate to whatever weather comes your way.
Out of all the tools I have learned to manage my emotions and live more fully, the 'OK' tool is my favourite. It's simple, and when I coach parents to use it, they get the benefit right away. You can take three second to use it in an emergency. You can use it every time you boil the kettle or wash your hands, just to feel good. And you can use it to go deep, for ongoing issues.
Two simple steps to being OK – especially when things are really hard
What can we parents do when we are hurting – when we’re in the grip of fear, hate, anger or despair? It’s so hard to support a child with an eating disorder when we’re not OK. It’s so hard to do anything. So what to do?
We can make it ‘OK’.
- O is for Observe
- K is for Kindness
I have researched and tested out many ways we can take care of our wellbeing, and I’m offering you some of the best bits with this ‘OK’ acronym. It can change your mental state within minutes and all you have to remember is two letters. Try it and tell me if you like it.
Start with O for Observe
Make a mental pause to step back and observe what’s going on for you. You’re looking for thoughts, emotions and most importantly, physical sensations. For example you’re pressing the ‘Pause’ button on the thought “I’ll never get my child to eat”, and as you do so you’re recognising fear and you’re noticing how tight your chest is.
‘O for Observe’ allows you to be aware of the burden you’re carrying. Before taking that step back, you probably didn’t even notice your chest was knotted – you were too caught up in an endless chain of thoughts. Before ‘O for Observe’, if you noticed you were scared (or angry, or distressed), you were probably judging yourself for feeling that way. ‘O for Observe’ invites you to turn off the autopilot, be present, and allow whatever is there right now.
Now you’ve done ‘O for Observe’ you’ve nicely interrupted your internal chatter, but perhaps your chest is really hurting and now you’re also conscious that your breathing is irregular and you’re getting nervous. ‘Observing’ seems to be making it worse! Who wants to observe, when you can ignore, push down, and deny? Mindfulness sucks!
This is where you absolutely must also bring in ‘K for Kindness’.
‘K for Kindness’
What’s needed now is kindness towards yourself and your experience in this moment. The most natural way of doing this is to distract yourself. If you’re in a horrible mental state and you’re very alone, I recommend you stick to that while you seek professional support. The way I’m proposing here, though, is to actively invite kindness into you. This route is usually more healing and frees you from constantly having to distract yourself or exert self-control.
Ask yourself what kindness means for you right now. With the feelings you’re experiencing, what do you most need? Perhaps it is a sense of being held, or loved or understood, or maybe you’re longing for peace or rest. Perhaps what would nourish your soul right now is a sense of light or warmth.
So send kindness – or peace, or light, or whatever you most need – send that inwards now. You can help yourself by voicing your wish: “May I have kindness”, “May I be peaceful”. Or by placing your hands on the part of your body that most needs comfort.
Extra tip: conjure up kind companions
Kindness towards yourself can be tricky if you’re locked inside in a small, tight me-me-me. Before things got really tough you might have gotten through life by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Self-reliance might have deprived you of a greater quality: interdependence. Connection is crucial to being OK. So when you do ‘K for Kindness’, bring to your aid the kindness of others.
Imagine all the parents who are in the same boat as you. Their story might be different, but they know what it’s like to suffer as you are suffering, and their deep needs are just the same. You could imagine parents in general, or even take in the whole of humanity or the whole of life. Or you could bring to mind a specific being – real or imagined – who dearly cares for you and will hold with you – or for you – what is too much to hold on your own.
Optional extra: Now send the kindness out to others
In your mind you’re now giving yourself kindness and receiving kindness from others. See what it’s like to expand outward, sending kindness out to specific people or to the world in general, including yourself: “May we all have kindness”, “May we all be peaceful”. You can include your child in these wishes, if it feels good.
It's more than a trick of the mind
‘OK’ may seem low-tech and simplistic, yet it's an effective way of changing your biochemistry. It can shift you from a state of fight or flight into a compassionate and resourceful state. You are allowing your limbic brain, or sympathetic nervous system, to halt its frenetic work on your behalf, you’re halting the production of adrenalin and cortisol and you’re producing feel-good hormones like oxytocin. And because the brain rewires itself with use, the more you consciously do ‘OK’, the more likely your brain will do it for you spontaneously.
When you’ve drifted away from being ‘OK’
You can do ‘OK’ for a few seconds while you’re in the middle of a stressful event, and you can take time to do it later, addressing your feelings in the ‘now’ as you recall the event. You can be sure that your mind will regularly wander off, because that’s what minds do. As soon as you notice this, you’re already doing ‘O for Observing’ – how great is that?! Add ‘K for Kindness’ and keep going until the current wave of suffering subsides.
And that’s it. Being OK through Observing and Kindness. It doesn’t change your external reality but it may change how you relate to it. Which will then allow you to make wise choices and take wise actions. For instance, you might be moved to go and get the kindness you need from friends or professionals.
The ‘OK’ visualisation, I hope, will not just give you instant relief, but will help you make great use of real connections – for a shoulder to cry on, for a listening ear, for shared laughter.
This self-compassion process is based on the many wonderful free resources provided by researcher Kirstin Neff on self-compassion.org