I’ve been thinking a lot about Mali’s comment on my last post, especially the part about how when she learned to love herself she was able to love her husband for who he is, without wanting him to change.
It was the transformative power of self-compassion that kept bringing me back to her comment. Could self-compassion be the key to all my troubles?
I wasn’t so sure, not because I didn’t think self-compassion was important, but because I believe I already practiced it. I didn’t consider myself self-hating: I think I’m an okay person. I don’t berate myself with put-downs or shame myself on a daily basis. I thought I was appropriately proud of my accomplishments and accepting of my flaws.
And yet I couldn’t get the idea of self-compassion out of my head. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the past few years have been hard on my view of myself. The implosion of friendships, including one that ended painfully and abruptly for reasons I still couldn’t clearly articulate, had left me feeling dejected and fundamentally damaged. I had become so unsure of my self-worth that I was retreating from most social situations. I had started focusing on my negative aspects, hyper aware of when people shushed me for being too loud, or seemed to shy way from my boisterous presence. After spending all of last year wishing I could eat lunch with my colleagues instead of rush home to pick up my son, I was now eating lunch alone in my classroom, unwilling to subject myself to other people’s possible judgement.
And yet, I didn’t speak hatefully to myself for these perceived short comings. Sure I wished I were a calmer person with a quieter voice, but I wasn’t calling myself names because I wasn’t.
After a few days of contemplating my own need for self-compassion, I searched my shelves for a book I had purchased long ago on the topic. Quickly I remembered that I had already given it away, because after reading a few chapters I had concluded that self-compassion was not something I needed to work on. I already felt fine about who I was, and the narrative about self-acceptance and love didn’t seem to apply to me as I already accepted myself.
The next morning I was in our school’s library inquiring about the availability of Chromebooks for one of my Spanish classes, when I came across a book about the power of self-compassion. I immediately recognized it as a book my closest friend at work had recommended, one she was holding a book club about next month. She had suggested I read it, because she knows I like that sort of thing, but I dismissed the idea, again determining that self-compassion was already a part of my life.
Yesterday I picked up the book and carefully read the back cover. I almost put it down again, but at the last minute I asked our librarian if I could check it out.
Last night I started to read it. Again I felt it didn’t really apply to me. There was no critical voice inside me proclaiming I was “a fat cow,” or “a horrible friend.” I almost put it down again, when I got to the first exercise. It intrigued me, so I tried it. Within minutes I was sobbing on my bed.
I guess self-compassion is something I do need to cultivate.
I’m only 60 pages into the book, so I can’t yet write much about this journey, but I wanted to come here and document my incredulity at my own self-deception. I consider myself a fairly self-aware person, so to find out that I was actually engaging in a lot of self-criticism, without even realizing it, has been shocking. I’m still not really sure what happened, all I can guess is that I had such faith in my standards as being appropriate, and so inundated with the idea that criticism is an essential part of self-improvement, that I didn’t realize I was feeling bad about myself for not being the person I thought I should be. Sure there were all sorts of things about myself I wanted to improve, but I didn’t think I felt badly about not yet achieving them.
And it’s not like there weren’t any clues. How many times have you, gentle readers, suggested that I’m being to hard on myself? I always counter that really I’m not, I’m just holding myself accountable, but I suspect now that you were all right: I have been too hard on myself. I do judge myself too harshly. I don’t forgive myself for my shortcomings.
Late last night I was picking up a few things before bed when I came upon a picture of myself from college. It must have been my sophomore year, when I was at my heaviest. In the picture I’m sitting on a bouncy horse at a playground, a young girl I used to babysit riding the horse next to me. I’m clearly 30-40 pounds over weight, with an awful bleach job on my horribly short hair. Looking at that picture I felt such an overwhelming sense of shame and disgust. I wanted to rip up the picture before burning it into oblivion. This memory of my past, which should have inspired wistful fondness for a family that meant so much to me during college, only conjured regret and self-loathing about how horrible I looked.
That is when I realized, that I don’t say mean things to myself because I’m on the acceptable side of most of my standards, and I’m actively working on the ones I haven’t yet achieved. This constant drive to improve is about keeping myself in a place where I can earn my own love and acceptance. I am always racing to stay on the right side of my own standards. If I stop, even for a moment, I have failed. And if I fail, I can’t forgive myself.
These are big realizations for me, and I have a lot of work to do to change deeply ingrained thought patterns. I think this journey is going to be a particularly difficult one, and I’m going to need to process a lot of dark, painful feelings before I make it to the other side. I’m not looking forward to walking this path, but I also recognize how necessary self-compassion is for me to be the wife, mother and friend that I want to be.
I start today, loving myself for the imperfect human being that I am and always will be.