Equipped with some kindness, I am making changes.
I have always been wary of ‘self-love’ mottos, embracing my low self-esteem and rejecting calls for more self assurance. It became my personal brand, no harm to myself and a non-threatening gift to my family and friends. But over time, I noticed two destructive patterns:
- As I bought into my negative self-talk, I let opportunities pass, thinking they were beyond me.
- I was using self deprecation to side step accountability and avoid the challenge of self improvement. To my mind then, I was making a mockery of myself to the world; wasn’t that responsibility enough?
Some friends cared enough to point out my less favourable qualities, but they always met with a defensive reply. One critic above all never gave up — my inner voice. Its noise was inescapable, particularly at 3am, but I didn’t know how to listen.
There’s another way of putting it. That voice didn’t speak with kindness, and I couldn’t see past its judging tone to take onboard its truth. All that resulted was a feeling of shame!
I needed to understand this better and find tools to help me deal with shame, take accountability and grow. I went online and began my research, which quickly honed in on articles about self-compassion.
They described self-compassion as:
- Taking ownership of your mistakes and aiming not to repeat them;
- Allowing yourself the same compassion you would a good friend who admits their errors to you.
This interested me. Compassionate accountability. This was not about self-indulgence, self-pity, or being able to justify not trying harder.
Though still cynical about a term like ‘self-compassion’, I scoured the internet a little further. Soon, I learnt there were scientific, data-driven arguments for it. My most valuable discovery was The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. The workbook explains self-compassion in three elements:
- Self kindness;
- Common humanity; and
Self kindness: Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.Dr Kristin Neff, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook
After decades of self-flagellation, it was hard, at first, to cut myself a little slack. Although my internal dialogue relied on so many ‘if only’ comments and so much negative self-talk, it was like home. For the brief moments I stopped indulging it, I felt a desperate sense of loss, like leaving my phone at the petrol station.
I had to rethink my self-talk and imagine myself helping a friend being too hard on themselves. This led to a more compassionate response, softening the tone of my inner voice.
The next step, common humanity, was my all-time favourite discovery. This is where I learnt I am not alone and that others suffer too. I can achieve this new perspective through reading, sharing and reaching out to others.
I have always felt a little uncomfortable sharing deep personal truths with friends, in fear it will come back to ‘bite me’. This is where the confidentiality of a therapist or group therapy has been more than comforting.
Group therapy is certainly one place where common humanity lives. As I listened to other people talk, their stories resonated with me. (I guess it is easier to hear about qualities in someone else rather than yourself). But more importantly, I felt compassion. My compassion flows when I hear their words, and their compassion when I share my insecurities has been heart-warming. Shame loves silences, and this I noticed when I saw it subsiding as I spoke to those I trusted.
The third element is mindfulness, the hardest step for me. I hate pain of any sort — physical, mental or emotional. I resist suffering with every ounce of strength.
Mindfulness is about sitting with the pain and experiencing it. No need to fight, deny or, in my case, get angry about it. This is a tough step and one I must work on daily. Staying with the discomfort does not take it away, but it helps me discover that the pain eventually passes on its own.
I don’t like what I experience in these mindful moments, but I am coming to see their value. I’m coming to understand what they mean when they say, ‘The only way out is through.’
Considering these three steps of self compassion, I have made some changes. The most noticeable has been growing up. Hiding behind humour and self-flagellation was keeping me down in more ways than one.
But before I get too ahead of myself… I am constantly reminded that like so many of these aha moments, it is a work in progress. Just when I think I have figured out this thing called life and understand the human psyche, an unexpected comment (normally from family) hits me from left field. I return to being a childlike individual, momentarily ignorant of all I’ve learnt.
This might be why the book included exercises. It is easy to intellectualise these steps, but in the times I have most needed self-compassion, I have struggled to put into practice. Life constantly throws us into unexpected situations, so having concrete tools at my fingertips is a wonderful gift. They help me manage those ‘left field’ stings.
I have recently written a quote from Maya Angelou on a sticky note and placed it on my mirror. It reads, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”