December 20, 2016

Loving Ourselves when We Feel Unlovable.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot!” I said as I heard the thud, the screech, and the scrape—the sounds of my car colliding with my son’s car, which was parked behind me.

“How did I miss seeing his car?“ I moaned. I got out and looked. Sure enough, we both had dents in our cars. I felt the familiar pull of over-responsibility and guilt as I thought about telling my son that I had hit his beloved car.

In the past, I may have indulged in self-torture by insisting on telling myself I was stupid or by worrying about how I was going to pay for it. However, this time I was determined to try something different. I wanted to make a healthy choice for myself and model something healthy for my children.

I was going to be compassionate with myself.

Experts define self-compassion as treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and support as you would a good friend. So I asked myself, “What would I tell my good friend Lauri if she had done the same thing?” I knew the answer. I might say something like, “Don’t worry, it will be ok. Your son will understand.” Or perhaps, “No one’s perfect and everyone makes mistakes.” Or, “You were just tired and didn’t notice. Anyone could have done that. I have.” I noticed that when I imagined saying those things to my friend I was much more patient than I ever am towards myself.

I had just returned from a conference on self-compassion at the Greater Good institute in Berkeley. At the conference the researchers explained self-compassion—what it is, where it comes from, and why it is important. They explained that we often fail to learn to have self-compassion for many reasons.

For some people, not having self-compassion is a coping skill. If we make the situation about something we did wrong it may allow us to believe that the situation is more controllable or fixable. For example, if I told myself that my little car accident was about me and my stupidity, I might misguidedly believe that if I learned to drive better I wouldn’t have any more stressful, or even scary, accidents.

Other people fail to learn self-compassion as children. Perhaps when we made mistakes as children we were blamed for them, called names or abused for them. In the process, we may have learned that we’re not worthy of compassion or concern and learned to direct it only toward other people.

We may have been told that being mean to ourselves is the only way to accomplish something. Often caregivers, coaches, or teachers feel that if they encourage us to be compassionate toward ourselves we’ll become lazy and unmotivated. I clearly remember my track coach in high school yelling loudly, “Push it, push it, push it!” as we neared the end of the race. I remember some students pushing it so hard they even lost bladder control.

While that may work for some people, at least up to a point, research finds that for many people, fear-based motivation increases arousal and stress that can actually decrease performance. I don’t know how many times as a student (or an adult) have told myself, “I just need to buck up and do this,” hoping to convince myself that I could do something hard.
If beating up on ourselves doesn’t work, what makes self-compassion more effective?

It doesn’t take much more than common sense to know the answer. What would we rather hear when we make a mistake? That we’re stupid and bad drivers, or that it’s okay, we don’t have to be perfect. Which would help us make a better decision in the future?

So, sitting in my driveway after backing into my son’s car, I imagined what would happen if someone told me the mean things I was tempted to tell myself. What if my spouse, who is typically loving and supportive, referred to me as a bad driver, said I was stupid, and reminded me to drive better? I would be mad, hurt, and probably would have cried. I might have been defensive and even said something hurtful back. And that would not have been productive.

Then I imagined my spouse saying something like, “Sweetie, it’s okay. You didn’t mean it. We’ll get them fixed.” I would have felt like he understood that I didn’t mean to hit the other car, and I would have been far less stressed.

So, I took some deep breaths. I sat in my car and breathed until I felt better, which was about ten minutes. I let my breath rock me and anchor me. I imagined myself in a hammock with my dog, Buddy, moving back and forth, feeling loved, safe, and cared for. Then I reminded myself that I am not the only one who’s suffering. Everyone everywhere has made a mistake. Many, many people have been in fender-benders.

And then I told myself the things I would want to hear from someone that I loved.

I reminded myself that it was okay. Cars are just material objects that can always be fixed. No one was harmed. I am not used to having a teen driver and wasn’t thinking about his car this morning. And that no matter what, I am loved and I am a good person.

And then, with love, peace, and gentleness in my heart, I went into the house to tell my son, confident that I could be there for myself, as well as for him.




Author: Cindy Nichols Anderson

Image: Pexels

Editor: Molly Murphy

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