In our search for peace and stability during a hellish time, perhaps no mantra stands out as more comforting than “give yourself grace.”
It’s the refrain you might turn to when you’re dealing with everyday frustrations like arguing with your kids, driving aggressively after being pulled over, or feeling overwhelmed by the stress of global events like the coronavirus pandemic. It offers relief in the midst of serious transgressions, such as not showing up for an important moment or breaking a promise. Giving yourself grace is permission to forgive your mistakes, lapses in judgment, and hurtful behavior because no one is perfect.
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The saying has deep roots in the yoga and religious communities and often appears online as a hashtag or inspirational quote. On Instagram, the combination of #grace and #giveyourselfgrace had more than 400,000 uses in just a few months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020. While the give yourself grace hashtag on the platform did not grow significantly during that time, it waits there (and on other social media sites) as a gentle reminder to let go of self-criticism, regret, and shame.
Yet giving grace must involve more than taking comfort. It should also prompt some form of action, whether that’s self-care, repairing a damaged relationship, or taking responsibility for your choices. First you have to learn how to use it as more than a hashtag or a cliché.
Diane Bondi, yoga teacher and author of Yoga for everyoneknows the saying well and is a “big believer” in its potential.
“Grace happens to give us some space, acceptance, and room to swallow hard or step back.”
“Grace happens to give us some space, acceptance and room to swallow hard or step back… and practice self-compassion,” she says.
Like any other hackneyed saying, Bondi says it can become “empty” or “plastic” if used in the wrong context. It can be calling it to get out of an awkward situation or to avoid apologizing when you hurt someone else. Grace is not an excuse to feel less internal or interpersonal conflict, but an opportunity to be kind to yourself.
Bondi says that when expressions of grace online are performative, they end up becoming a trendy, meaningless sentiment. If someone you follow online talks about giving grace, it should occur in an appropriate context and be tied to action, such as solving problems, seeking forgiveness, or practicing acceptance of difficult circumstances and emotions.
“Don’t just say the word and do nothing to deal with it [a problem]or say the word and center yourself,” she says.
Toby Sola, head teacher of the meditation app Brightmind, thinks of giving grace as a form of peace. This concept is defined by openness, softness and love, qualities that allow emotions to come and go, “without pressure or pull,” Sola says. People often want to keep positive emotions close to themselves and resist negative feelings, but calmness can help them instead meet each experience with warmth and acceptance. Sola says that this actually increases the satisfaction derived from pleasant experiences while decreasing the distress that comes from uncomfortable feelings.
When regret and shame, for example, are met with acceptance, Sola says they are not just a source of suffering, but serve an important purpose by signaling to the mind and body that it is possible to act differently in the future. In this sense, consider giving yourself the grace to make different choices.
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Finding a grace-related social media post that offers an opportunity to be kind to yourself can help your body relax. An exhausted mom who sees a post about giving yourself grace when balancing remote school and work may feel her raw self-esteem slip away, along with the sudden relaxation of tight jaws or tense muscles.
To replicate this feeling offline, Sola recommends relaxing the body and taking a few deep breaths. While this is not cool in practice, it is a step in the right direction. For a more authentic cool-down experience, try a guided meditation while keeping your body relaxed and putting a slight smile on your face. Meditation may include a mantra such as “I give myself grace,” which should be recited in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
If you feel compelled at first, rest assured that a mantra “can seep into the rest of your being” over time, Sola says.
The pitfall in this practice, however, is to confuse calmness with apathy about your behavior, because anything can be met with non-judgmental openness.
“You should strive to improve the world and your relationships and how you act,” Sola says.
Calmness, used appropriately, can help you do this by reducing the stress and anxiety that come with challenging emotions and experiences, thereby freeing up energy to responsibly deal with tension, mistakes, and conflict.
Sola understands why the idea of giving yourself grace was helpful to people in a time filled with suffering.
“When you’re objectively overwhelmed and sometimes you don’t even know what to do to improve your situation, which is the case with many people, you only have one option,” he says. “Greet him with grace.”
UPDATE: 20 November 2023, 14:04 AEDT This article was originally published in November 2020 and has since been updated in November 2023.