Self-Deception and Self-Compassion

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.

19 Comments

  1. So I’m reading along, thinking, yeah, yeah, not a problem I have and then I get to this:
    ” 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. ” Whoa. Is this what I’m doing? I’m not sure. Doesn’t the fact that you believe you can change, indicate an abundance of hope & love for yourself? Don’t high expectations to some extent come from confidence? If I hated myself, wouldn’t I just give up and think “I can’t do it”? Does trying to make positive change in your life preclude acceptance? Or can you do both? I don’t know the answers to any of these, of course. I do know that the idea of letting go of self-hatred & guilt sounds awesome.

    But where I, of course get stuck is here: “loving myself for the imperfect human being that I am and always will be.” How???

    1. I have no idea how I’m going to manage the loving myself for the imperfect human being that I am, but I’m realizing that I need to find a way, because I’ll never be the mother I want to be to my daughter if I can’t manage to be a care giver to myself. So much of what complicates my relationship with my daughter is that the things that chafe me about her are traits she gets from me, so I have guilt and self-loathing compounding my already tumultuous interactions with her. Maybe if I can forgive myself for what I perceive as negative traits, I won’t get so wound up when my daughter annoys me with them too. 😉

  2. It seems like I could use some of this myself. My therapist is always telling me I’m doing absolutely fine, and I feel like she must not be listening or paying attention. It’s hard to believe i might actually be perfectly normal.

    But yes! You are too hard on yourself (particularly about your finances & weight). And so is Ana.

    1. You’re last part actually made me laugh out loud–in the stall of the bathroom at my school. 😉

      I think we all are perfectly normal, it’s just no one talks about these things in every day life, so we all feel like we’re different in some way. That is actually a big part of the book, our shared humanity. It might be worth a read for you, if only for the normalizing factor.

      1. I see you told us the author in a couple of comments below. I will see if my library has it. Thanks.

        I had this revelation recently. What if i’m not actually a total mess and falling apart in every way? What if, in fact, I’m dealing with a lot of things and doing the best I can with them, and if I don’t always succeed, it’s because this sh*t is hard? I’m not sure I 100% believe this, but the idea that *maybe* it *might* be the case is pretty exciting.

  3. I am the total opposite of you and I find your personality fascinating because you are like my daughter in many ways. I am in my 50’s but have always felt comfortable in my own skin since ever I can remember. I have never strived for anything or tried to change myself or felt I needed to achieve much – I am content as I am. I am married for 29 years with two almost grown children I worked as a podiatrist and am now retired and I muddle along through lifes ups and downs as best I can. My daughter who is 24 on the other hand is in a cycle of perfectionism, self doubt, hyper self awareness etc etc and I don’t know why because she was brought up by me and I am not any way like that. I wish I could find a way to make her love herself and be content with herself as she is. And I wish that for you too. Constant holding yourself to account and pushing yourself this way and that is exhausting for both the person caught in the cycle and for the person closest watching it. How to achieve contentment, and I don’t mean being content with what you have as you have no other option, but being actually content with your life and yourself is a joy in itself and brings peace and relaxation with it. This might sound weird but I don’t get wanting to set goals and striving for this and that and challenging yourself endlessly- it all sounds exhausting. Just like new year resolutions, why bother, just enjoy being you. I really doesn’t matter if you never “achieve” very much you can still have a great life. Just my personal opinion and I know a lot of people will disagree with me. I hope you can find peace though whatever that means for you.

    1. I will definitely strive to enjoy being me. That sounds lovely. It also sounds impossible, but I’m definitely going to try. 😉

  4. What book?

    It helped me a great deal to realize how ordinary I am. I mean, yeah, some things about me are a little weird but I’m pretty average and that’s great. I was a perfectionist and I’ve pretty much given it up as a nasty habit. It was hard and took a couple of years to get over with a lot of intense work. I’m really so much happier now though, so it’s worth doing. It’s a shift from “if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t worth doing” to “it’s the best I can do and tomorrow I can do some more” and to taking the chance of doing things imperfectly.

    1. It’s funny, because I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist, but I realize I’m more of one than not. That has been eye opening for me, because I can’t change a thought-process if I don’t even realize it’s there. I’m trying to recognize when my perfectionist side is coming out and quiet those voices, but I’m sure it will be a long, hard road. Thanks for letting me know that it is possible to tame those voices.

  5. I actually have that same book if it’s what I’m thinking it is. It’s simply titled self compassion (Kristin Neff). I can’t remember exactly why I got it-I think someone I know recommended it and I can’t even remember why. It didn’t really stick with me or anything. It’s still on my shelf, maybe I’ll take another look. It’s been a few years since I read it.

    1. That is the book. It’s not some tranformative read or anything, but I do think it’s worth a look if you’re interesting in exploring the topic. I don’t know if there is a better book out there about self-compassion.

  6. What’s the book? This resonated. I am unrelentingly focused on self improvement and never measure up to my impossibly high standards. Which I excuse everyone else for.

    1. The book is Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff. I don’t think it’s some life-changing book, but I think it’s a good enough introduction if you’re interested in exploring self-compassion for the first time.

  7. “Love your neighbor as yourself” Remember that advice? Means you have to love yourself and forgive yourself and NOT hold yourself to a higher standard than others.
    REALLY hard to do.
    Really hard to not backslide into it.
    But reminding yourself ALL THE TIME helps.
    Actually hearing what others tell you about their lives normalizes yours. Which is why I think you are doing something remarkable in your blogging. You are not candy coating; but you are routinely way harder on yourself than I think you would be on anyone else. Lots of us do this.
    It isn’t good for us OR for our children who learn to do the same thing and then we are upset by their self-judgement and assumptions about our opinions when we really truly honestly think they are magnificent. We are all not allowing ourselves to hear that we, including you, are magnificent too.
    Please keep reading and sharing. I need the reminders too….
    Hallelujah choir is breaking out! Love yourself!!!

    1. I am definitely coming to believe that if I don’t love my self unconditionally, I can’t love others unconditionally either. I’ve read that many times before, but I never really believed it. Now I think I do.

  8. What is the name of this book?

    Your post, and every. Single.comment resonated with me. I think you and I are very similar in many ways (especially in the boisterous department!). I should add this book to my master 41 plan!

    This, this is me: “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.”

  9. PS: Was listening to a friend who was bashing her self about her work situation (not in her control) and because of you and this post I had the words ‘self-compassion’ at the tip of my tongue. It was an aha moment for her and she heard and understood in a different way that created self forgiveness and made going forward easier. You and your writings and everyone’s comments made a gift to the world this morning. Thank you all.

  10. Well, I’m really sorry my comment ultimately saw you lying on your bed in tears. But really pleased that maybe you understand what I’ve been seeing (and so many of your wise commenters) – a woman who is really tough on herself, when she is pretty damn amazing, if you ask me.

    A friend and I talked about this once. There was an exercise in a book she’d given me, about looking in the mirror and saying, “I approve of you. I love you.” She couldn’t say approve and I couldn’t say love …

    What worked for me first is just accepting. I had to do that when I couldn’t have children. For almost the first time, I had to accept I was flawed, when in the past I’d always been able to cover up flaws, pretend I’m more confident than I am, suck in that stomach, laugh when I didn’t feel like it, overcome fears, work hard. With that acceptance, came a self-compassion and love. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love all my flaws. There are one or two I’m too embarrassed to write about, though I’m building up to that. I’m trying to change them. Self-improvement doesn’t stop with self-compassion and acceptance. It is just a much kinder process.

    1. “Self-improvement doesn’t stop with self-compassion and acceptance. It is just a much kinder process.” <-- This is what I had a hard time understanding for so long, but now I'm starting to get it. I'm starting to understand that self-compassion isn't accepting your flaws so that you don't want to change them, it's being kind to yourself as you attempt to change them. Honestly, I think I had such a hard time understanding that before because I couldn't fathom that kindness in those situations was even a choice. Now I'm starting to see it, and it's very powerful.

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