Self-compassion is not something I offer myself naturally. I have to stop and deliberately think about it. Every. Single. Time. And even that’s difficult. I don’t always remember to stop and think before I criticize or am unkind to myself. And sometimes I just can’t accomplish it, even when I do think about it.
It’s difficult to justify not knowing how to show myself compassion halfway through my 30s. How have I never learned how to do this? I think I might have known at one time or another, but I’ve forgotten. Shame is good at making us forget the good things. But I’m ready to remember them.
I’ve been working on practicing self-compassion. Several months ago, I wrote myself a letter, offering me the kind of compassion I’d offer a good friend. It began:
My dear friend. I’m sorry to hear about the hard things you’re dealing with right now. I know you must be struggling with the things you’re going through. Hang in there and be strong. You’re so brave to take these steps and to stare down and deal with the shame and history and abuse that is hurting you so bad. I can’t imagine having the strength to carry that for 15 years and in the end to have to relearn how to feel and to cope with such harsh feelings.
It’s time to recognize that I’ve not only endured some painful points in my life, but also have the strength and courage it takes to face them and change my life.
A few weeks ago, and now continuing this week as well, I took this concept a step farther. I began keeping a self-compassion journal. I have been sitting down each night and writing down all the things I’ve felt ashamed for or that made me feel bad during the day, whether it was something I felt I’d done wrong or something someone else had done to shame me. I’ve then been writing self-compassionate responses to each of these items, things such as “It’s okay. You worked hard. I’m proud of you.” It has been difficult and at times tedious work, but I am learning some important lessons from it, things I can use to grow.
First and foremost, I’ve always known I’m critical of myself, but it seems to go further than I thought. I’m hard on myself. My lists of shaming items tend to be long and detailed. At the end of each day, I remember everything I’ve felt bad for and about. The smallest items are worth criticizing—I felt guilty for having to find a new home for my dog; I felt at fault for my son’s lower grades at the end of the school year, because I’m the one who told him his dad and I were separating and that we’d have to move; I felt ashamed for standing up for myself against another family member in front of my family; I blamed myself for my husband getting angry; etc.
I allow myself no leeway, no room to make a single mistake without notation, and I take responsibility for things that aren’t necessarily mine to be responsible for. More uncompassionately, I also withhold forgiveness from myself. After an entire day has passed, I can still feel the shame and guilt I felt as long ago as the morning. There is no forgetting, no letting go.
I struggle through the self-compassionate notes sometimes, but I write them, forcing the kindness and forgiveness if I have to. It’s helping. I’m learning. Sometimes the shaming lists are shorter and sometimes I fall asleep loving myself a little more than I did when I started. It’s a beginning, a platform to start from.
From this experience and my observations, I’ve gone another step. Forgiveness is definitely one of the things I find most difficult to offer myself. And I’m taking time to study what forgiveness is, to create in myself a concept that I can wrap my mind around and make my own. I don’t want to just allow myself to make mistakes now and again—I want to forgive myself more completely when I do make them, because I will make them.
The most striking thing I’ve found is that experts see forgiveness as a “deliberate” and “conscious” decision. In order to forgive myself, I need to decide to do so. I can also choose not to, which has traditionally been the path I’ve followed. But writing self-compassionate notes has been a way for me to practice making the decision to forgive, and I’ve already noticed that I don’t always need to wait until the end of the day to do so. Sometimes, I grant forgiveness on the spot. Growth.
For me, even once I’ve chosen to forgive, there is still more that needs to happen, and again, the self-compassion notes have given me a way to practice this. It is important to let go of whatever it is that’s given me shame or guilt. This is perhaps the most difficult part for me. I am a perfectionist. My memory is long and focused on the minutiae of every one of my offenses. I hold on to them, save them to use against myself later, let them burn inside me and feed my shame. But one can even learn to stop doing this. Think of it this way:
Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing the monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward. – Author unknown
The idea of a deliberate decision is there again. Forgiveness and letting go of the things I’ve done and that I’ve experienced is my choice. I control it. I have the power to give myself kindness and compassion. No one can offer it to me like I can.
Be kind to yourself. Be self-compassionate. Forgive and let go of hurt and blame. You’re the only one who can do that for yourself.