In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D. offers a beautiful mantra she developed to help her deal with negative emotions, a reminder to treat herself with self-compassion when discomfort arises: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
Sometimes it’s not until we have reached a level of pain – or the scare of going back to the hospital — that we are truly willing to change our ways. Although I’ve been working with my therapist and doctor over the last six months on being kinder to myself, I have still been driven primarily by my old tapes of self-bashing – the belief that if I push myself harder, self-acceptance will come.
Ruminations and the Drill Sergeant
Yesterday was a pivotal moment when I realized this way of operating is going to destroy me if I continue down its path. I recognized its place in driving my health to scary lows as of late. To embrace self-compassion, for me, is not a nice New Year’s resolution or some lofty philosophy to aim for: it is the only way I can heal and move toward peace and wholeness.
I had been up all night fighting excruciating ruminations. The more I tried to distract myself from them, the stronger they became — which exacerbated the message of failure I was fighting in the first place. My response: Try harder in every other aspect of my life.
Despite the cold and windy weather, I rushed out of the house at 5 a.m. and ran six miles, up the steep scenic bridge over the Severn River. Whenever I was tempted to walk, the inner drill sergeant yelled, “Don’t give in. This is all in your head. Run, damn it, run harder.” I extended my workout, thinking the more miles I ran, the more I could believe that I deserved a place among the human race. When I got home I committed to more work this week. Consistent with my M.O., the worse I felt, the harder I drove myself. The louder the ruminations, the more demanding my inner drill sergeant became.
The Genesis of Self-Bashing
Some of us learned these self-bashing tapes as children and they can be hard to reprogram. Although locating the genesis of obtrusive thoughts doesn’t numb their sting, it can allow us to place their hurtful messages in proper context and realize that the contents of our ruminations aren’t entirely about the criticism we are obsessing about.
Sometimes the bashing serves as a defense mechanism to protect us from further pain or from the rejection that we experienced in our formative years. Neff explains, “Children start to believe that self-criticism will prevent them from making future mistakes, thereby circumventing others’ criticism. A verbal assault doesn’t have quite the same power when it merely repeats what you’ve already said to yourself.”
Her words reminded me of the cartoon where one chicken says to another, “You suck!” The other responds, “I know, right?” Below it reads “The upside of low self-esteem is that it takes the sting out of most insults.”
Our Not-So-Kind Culture
For those of us with loud self-critical noise, our inner messages are often reinforced by a culture that measures worthiness by levels of productivity. “One of the downsides of living in a culture that stresses the ethic of independence and individual achievement is that if we don’t reach our ideal goals, we feel that we only have ourselves to blame,” explains Neff. This becomes painfully obvious with every depressive episode I have. Too often when I spill my guts to someone, the first question is, “Are you still working?” It’s no wonder why it’s so challenging to replace our childhood tapes with a kinder message, one that has nothing to do with work performance or success.
What If You Are Already Enough?
Yesterday morning I arrived at my doctor’s appointment with my list of successes. Running six miles and committing to a full work week were just a few items on my list, anecdotal evidence I compiled to prove that I was beating this demon. I was shaking and crying in her office but was equipped with achievements.
“I can’t stop the ruminations but I can fight harder in every other way to remain in control,” I said.
She looked at me with piercing compassion.
“This approach is only going to worsen your condition,” she said. “I’d like to think with some self-compassion we can turn it around, but it’s going to require a completely different way of thinking, one that may be uncomfortable for you.”
“What if you believed that you are already enough?” she asked me.
“How would that feel?”
I stared back at her.
I have absolutely no idea, I thought to myself.
Self-Criticism and Depression
My doctor explained that persons who are hardest on themselves, who beat themselves up mercelessly, have a strong propensity for depression and anxiety. Neff grounds that statement with her own research. “One of the most robust and consistent findings in the research literature is that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and depressed,” she writes.
Everyone can benefit from self-compassion, of course. But for extreme self-critics, learning to be kind to oneself can be life-saving. Chronic self-bashing puts people at risk for suicide attempts. Neff explains, “Feelings of shame and insignificance can lead to a devaluing of oneself to the extent that it even overpowers our most basic and fundamental instinct—the will to stay alive.” I can appreciate this research. While I’ve always been pained by these thoughts, in the last six months, thoughts of unworthiness, at times, feel unbearable.
A Prescription of Self-Compassion
Trying too hard, it turns out, was working against me, robbing me of the little resiliency I had. My doctor prescribed a day off, some time to read about self-compassion and to learn how I can start being kind of myself.
“If you can embrace self-compassion,” she said, “you will feel so much better.”
This is, without doubt, the hardest lesson of my life.
I went to the woods and sat for an hour in the leaves. When the ruminations surfaced, I didn’t reprimand myself for being weak and pathetic. Instead I responded with a gentle, “Ah yes, the old familiar voice. You are part of me but you don’t define me.”
I watched a really bad Christmas movie with my daughter on her bed. The thoughts continued to pester me, but I treated myself gently. “I know you’re here and you’re welcome to say whatever you want,” I said to them, “but I don’t have to believe you.”
In the evening I drove to Michaels art supply store to buy some air-dry clay. When I returned, I carved a heart, symbolizing both self-compassion and the courage within me to embrace this kinder self.
Letter to My Younger, Scared Self
The last thing I did was write a letter to the scared 10-year-old inside of me that wants so badly to be validated, who will do just about anything to win someone’s approval, who learned the message before her prefrontal cortex was formed that she must earn love with her accomplishments and success.
Dear Little Girl,
You are perfect the way you are.
Know that there is nothing you have to prove.
You are already whole.
It doesn’t matter if you write or edit another article for the rest of your life, if you give another talk, or publish a book. None of that determines your value. You don’t have to earn love and acceptance. You already have it.
You’ve measured your worth with accomplishments since the day you could express yourself. You never believed you were enough without them. Just one more accolade – one more book, one more media appearance, one more swim across the bay – and you weren’t a failure. Although they may have given you temporary relief, the emptiness stalked you, driving you to take on yet another volunteer position or radio show or project to fill that immense cavity.
The truth is they don’t matter. They aren’t the essence of who you are or the lines that define you. You are perfectly complete as you are. Even if you never touch a keyboard or wear a power suit again.
Trust this truth.
You are enough.
Relax into it.
Let this reassurance soak into every cell of your being and start to heal what you perceive as the broken parts of you. The reality is that you are not fractured. Your pain just makes you think you are.
You are already whole.