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I spent a summer afternoon sitting by Lake Mendota in James Madison Park, breathing in the fresh air, feeling the heat of the sun on my skin, and watching people walk down the path by the water.
While people-watching, I also learned about Maitri. The word was new to me, but I discovered that it is something I have been incorporating into my own personal and professional practice for a long time.
I began writing about how this concept is connected to my life as a social worker and the value of believing in the inherent dignity and worth of the people I work with. I got halfway through that piece, packed up, and went home for the day, feeling excited about my progress.
As I drove home, I reflected on how much I love summer in Wisconsin and how I appreciated being able to spend my afternoon off outside. As I did so, the dreaded “should haves” began to creep into my thoughts.
This is nothing new for me, but normally, I practice thought stopping and have been doing so successfully for a long time. I can’t explain why, but on this day, I just didn’t do it.
“You should have worked today instead of taking off because now you’re never going to get everything done.”
“You’ve been engaged for three years; you should have made wedding plans and followed through already.”
“You’re 39 and only getting older, you should have done more with your life by now.”
“You should have had kids like everyone else.”
Essentially, nothing I’ve chosen has been the right choice.
The list is endless and sent me into a regrettably comfortable and familiar spiral of self-doubt and shame and the unsettling feeling of being behind or wrong in every way. I allowed the negative thoughts to creep in and instead of following my usual thought stopping practice, I let them in and then proceeded to get mad at myself for doing so, making things worse. Then suddenly that was it for me, my great day became sh*t.
I felt helpless due to my perceived inability to stop the thoughts that I knew weren’t truth; never mind all of the times I’ve done so successfully. I silently chastised myself for ruining an amazing day and allowing it to end instead with inner turmoil, restlessness, and a discouraging feeling of self-loathing that I haven’t felt in quite some time.
I found myself believing that each day thereafter would come to a close in the same way—chest tight and feeling like the wind was knocked out of me after considering all of the ways that I “should have” done life differently.
As I spent several days lamenting over falling down, I haphazardly meditated, wrote, and engaged in whatever unfocused thing I could think of that I knew had made me feel good at some point. All while I continued to beat myself up, as if feeling bad was unforgivable.
In a moment of clarity, I revisited a couple of lessons and meditations in the Healthy Minds app that I have been using to help shift my perspective. These were related to self-compassion and seeing the good in ourselves. I was reminded that I am so much more than this one event, this one time where, for whatever reason, I let myself slip into old habits that make me feel terrible. I was able to take several steps back to look at the feelings without letting them take back over.
Almost two weeks later, I’ve finally worked myself out of that funk by practicing Maitri—specifically, unconditional self-compassion and self-love.
Instead of expecting perfection and repeatedly kicking myself for falling short, I finally extended a hand to the version of myself that fell and then embraced her. I knew what I needed to do to avoid this situation and didn’t do it. That’s okay. I love myself anyway because I’m still insightful, loving, and kind.
I’ll probably do this again at some point for no clear reason, and that’s okay too. I’m still smart, resilient, and dedicated to being the best version of myself that I can be. Falling down doesn’t invalidate or erase all of the work that has already been done. Falling down in life is inevitable and presents opportunities for growth and learning about how to love ourselves.
Although I haven’t (yet) finished the article I originally set out to write, I now have this one to share, with different insight than what I originally intended to give.
The parts of me that sometimes bring distress are just as much a part of me as the ones that help me to find joy in watching a sunrise or seeing someone help another person just because they can.
The parts that I have long considered to be bad aren’t bad at all and don’t need to be shoved down and hidden or thrown away. They’re just as worthy of love and kindness as the rest.