After I got divorced, I was reeling from all the changes in my life and from the wounds of being in an unhealthy marriage.
It felt heroic to get up in the morning. I slept and slept. I could only eat a single bite for each meal. I lost 40 pounds in three months. In pictures from that time, I look tired and scared.
The voice in my head said, “You are a loser.”
Change and loss and sorrow in my life tends to be accompanied by a mean voice in my head that tells me I am a cow. This voice rears its ugly head when I am at my most vulnerable.
I tried to be gentle with myself. I gave myself permission to steep in my sorrow for a year, but the whole year was spent steeped more in rude self-judgment than in sorrow. “Look at the dummy alone in bed,” I pointed and murmured inside. “What a screw up.”
I needed to find a way out of the groove of self-loathing I had created. I wanted to look forward to each day again. I really wanted to stop telling myself nasty things. I wanted to care about more than my children again.
I wanted to care about my self.
If we call ourselves dumb, in that little voice in our heads, or if we tell ourselves that we are screw-ups…
If we look in the mirror and look away again with a feeling of disgust in our guts...
If we only get out of bed for other people who rely on us, or we pretend to listen to someone and say, to ourselves, “Focus and look at the person so that you appear to be listening, you dumb cow…”
If we ever call ourselves dumb cows…
If we ever call ourselves any names at all—laugh and point inside at what a bad job we have done with our lives…
If we ever feel like it might make sense to just go back to bed, and it is only 8:00 a.m. and we have an entire day ahead of us that looms like a nightmare…
If, during painful periods of our lives, we develop a habit of stomping on ourselves, we can consciously choose something else.
These three steps are the steps I took to pull myself out of bed and out of self-loathing:
Step One: Focus on our breath.
I began by focusing on my breath. I noticed that I cared about my breath going in and out of my body. I recognized and appreciated the way in which my muscles were cooperating with each other to breathe in and breathe out. I noticed the way that I could be conscious of each breath and how this could distract me and help me feel a kind of focused gratitude for each breath. It reminded me of a time when I had pneumonia and I had to fight for each breath, and how grateful I felt when I was able to get a full breath into my lungs. I tried to recognize the ease that I had with each breath, and I said thank you.
I would take a moment at the beginning and end of each day, and focus closely on my breath in this way, saying thank you, quietly, inside myself.
Step Two: Appreciate something beautiful in our lives.
Noticing my breath gave me enough respite from sorrow (and enough distraction from saying mean things inside) that I was able to appreciate beauty. I wasn’t ready to appreciate my own beauty, but I could appreciate beauty outside myself. I remember standing after the kids had gone to school, rinsing the breakfast dishes, and looking out my kitchen window. A bird was wobbling on a tree branch outside my window—sitting alone, bobbing ever so slightly. I opened the door to the rest of my life right then. I enjoyed the way the bird looked through my window in the early light—how it was perfectly framed and flirting with the morning.
What we notice that is beautiful does not have to be the natural world. It can be anything. If it is possible to notice the beauty in the curve of our own arm, we are ahead of the game. But it can be the pattern on our favorite dress. It can be the sound of church bells chiming in the distance.
The natural world offers so many opportunities to find beauty. We can walk outside and notice the early morning shadows—how they are soft and how they move across the ground at an almost imperceptible pace. The way the trees filter the morning light. We can notice the way the crooked shape of a branch is beautiful. Or better yet, our own reflection!
Step Three: Talk back to our sorrow.
Looking up from my sorrow long enough to appreciate something beautiful allowed me to begin to take myself in hand and coach myself out of hibernation. I had been listening to the voice in my head that told me I had done a poor job with my life. And this had turned into a voice in my head that told me I was a cow—a stupid, unlovable cow.
But after noticing my breath, and then noticing the bird in my window, I had enough strength and internal calm to listen to the voice in my head that could guide me in a different direction.
I began to talk back to my sorrow. I began to tell myself that I was strong, that I had survived, that I deserved good things. I looked in the mirror and told myself I was smart. I was lovable. I could try again. I did not always agree with the things I told myself. But I went on telling myself these things because I knew that I was the person most responsible for taking care of me. I allowed my interior voices to be in conflict—one said, “You’re a loser.” And another said, “You are a survivor, you are beautiful.”
Our internal voices might be used to reminding us of our sorrow. And we might get into a rut of self-condemnation. We can use the momentary reprieve from sorrow that noticing our breath and appreciating something beautiful has given to us. And we can coach ourselves by saying different things to ourselves. We can tell ourselves internally, “It is time to heal.”
If we practice these three steps faithfully, there will be a day—it will be like any other day in some ways. We will look up and notice that we do not want to go back to bed. We want to step outside and feel the air on our skin and the sun—the way it sparkles on the water or the way it hits a cloud and makes a tiny ray of light shine down.
We will stop needing to take ourselves in hand and consciously appreciate our breath, consciously appreciate the bird outside our window, consciously tell ourselves that we are beautiful and worthy of good things. We will simply be awake to all of these things in ways that we were not before.
This is how we start.
Author: Emilie Mitcham
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own