Letting Go of Kindness – An Act of Self-Compassion

Featured Image:  “~Cloudy Sky~,” © ~Sage~ (own work), Sep 2006. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A couple weeks ago, I began to fall behind on my Kindness Challenge reflections, which was ironic, considering that the emphasis during the third week was on radiating kindness through my daily acts of living. After returning from my life-changing experience at Walden in January 2015, what I desired more than anything else was to become the most loving, empathetic and compassionate, authentic version of myself possible. Could any goal be more congruent with the third week of the challenge?

“Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Thus, I figured that this third week would result in no great change from my everyday strivings to live wholeheartedly, lovingly, generously, and authentically. Still, I looked forward to the opportunity to rededicate myself to this way of being. Despite my best intentions, I remained quite dissatisfied with my persistent meanness and littleness. Often imagining myself as a sour lemon drop, my own mouth puckered when I recollected the rapid-fire judgments and preconceptions that came to me so unbidden and automatically. I loathed the way I was so quick to complain and how easily I became just another contributor to the cynical, negative griping that permeated my workplace.

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

After returning from my brief vacation about two weeks ago, I also began to notice an increase in my self-criticism, my rigidity, and my perfectionistic striving. I wasn’t sure when it started, though I suspected the change commenced at least several months ago. Discouraged, I attempted to treat myself gently, recognizing that further criticism and frustration would only perpetuate the cycle. However, I was a little depressed. What happened to the self-compassion that I so carefully nurtured in my early recovery? There was a time when I repeated these words every time I stepped out my front door:  “Today, I’m cultivating imperfection!” Somewhere along the way, my heart forgot a fundamental realization that made my recovery possible. My head knew the truth, but I lost the significance and the implication of what follows:  God loves me not because of who I am, not because of my accomplishments or efforts, not even because of my potential, but because God IS love. God’s love for me is absolutely independent of my actions, or even my beliefs. All I need is to LET God love me.

dandelion,” © Jason (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“When we’re accepting of our own idiosyncrasies, we become more accepting of others… If I feel humble and loving toward myself as I walk out the door, in spite of my flaws, I’ll greet others with a soft smile.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Of course, being a hard worker, I threw all my strength and energy into the endeavor of salvaging my skills. If there was one thing I was ever good at, it was making lists. I scrambled to pinpoint ALL of my weaknesses and enumerated specific methods to rectify each one. However, identifying my “problems” only pitched me into increasing desperation and intensified rigidity. I told myself that I was a failure for my inability to maintain my coping skills and healthy thinking. I failed to read enough, write enough, live wholeheartedly, adhere to a consistent schedule of sleep, attend enough yoga classes, drink enough water, swim enough, walk enough, pray enough, use my DBT workbook enough… I couldn’t do anything right. Then, one afternoon, during a conversation with my pastor, self-awareness slowly creeped upon me. I… AM… BEING… SO… FREAKING… HARD… ON… MYSELF. I am so quick to feel persecuted and unfairly treated by others or by fate, but it is I who treat myself the most mercilessly.

At precisely 9 am, every Tuesday through Friday morning, all the decision-makers from each branch of my organization come together to brief each other… and to share “constructive” criticism. Though my office environment is very flexible, and I count my closest colleagues among my supportive friends, many of the people who gather around the conference table on these mornings rely (unconsciously, I’m certain) on those coping skills that shift pain, discomfort, and intolerance onto others – shaming, judging, and scapegoating.

When I first returned from partial hospitalization for my eating disorder, the thought of stepping back into that room evoked panic. During treatment, I discovered a fragile, precious soul under all of that hate, anger, self-loathing, numbing, helplessness, blame, and fear. Like a tender, spring bud pushing up through loose earth, I felt exquisitely vulnerable to the crushing, bitter negativity of the people around me. Fortunately, with the passage of time and regular practices of mindfulness, acceptance, and dialectics, that tiny shoot sprouted a few, delicate roots. I experimented with different ways of interpreting what transpired during our meetings as I attempted to understand circumstances from as many perspectives as possible. In my better moments, I sought countless ways to give others the benefit of the doubt. These mornings became an opportunity for me to exercise my dialectical behavioral skills, to observe, to describe, to explore my cognitive and emotional reactions, and to seek for the shared humanity that existed between all of us, but as I gradually grew stronger and more adept at navigating the world around me, my sensitivity to my ongoing need for these skills waned.

“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The morning following my conversation with my pastor, I walked into the sterile, gray-walled conference room, found my usual seat, and began scanning the many faces around me. As I settled into the moment, opening my ears to the soft, whooshing drone of the ventilation system and the gravelly, deep, methodic voice of the particular department chair who happened to be speaking, I made a rather sudden and spontaneous decision. To every meeting, I carried with me a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I recorded any thoughts, emotions, or reactions that I might need to process. Only a few pages remained in the pad that lay before me. Curiously but hesitantly, I fluttered the pages backward until I arrived at the very beginning, written precisely eleven months earlier. As I listened quietly to the relatively bland conversation unfolding around me, I skimmed my notes from July 2015 for the first time since putting them down in tiny, neat cursive. In a matter of mere seconds, my eye glancing from one line to the next, a pattern swiftly emerged. I WAS so freaking hard on myself.

There was no gradual loss of self-compassion. I never ceased treating myself kindly. The reality was that I never exercised much self-compassion, ever. For me, self-compassion was always a struggle. A year ago, the triggers for my inwardly-directed criticism were different, and I was hyper-attentive to an alternate spectrum of shortcomings. Yet, I was just as unwilling to accept imperfection in myself then as I feared I was now. A tiny slip-up provoked an equally self-blaming, self-paining response.

Which leads me to… ACCEPTANCE. Being kind is always going to be a challenge for me. That is just the way it is. That is just the way I am. There will be no rapid undoing after thirty-two years of the same strict, uncompromising, results-oriented, utilitarian, un-empathetic messages. What I received from my parents in childhood became my core beliefs about myself and the world, and from there, my inner voice springs. I can change it. I am already rewiring my brain. But slips and setbacks will happen. Perhaps the kindest gift I can give myself today is to accept that I am going to say and do nasty things, I will vent anger, frustration, impatience, and hurt onto others, and there is a very good possibility that rigidity and perfectionism will remain my stumbling blocks until the day I die, even if I live to be 100. Even if I live to be 120. Rather than treat myself severely and unforgivingly each time I catch myself thinking or behaving in these ways, maybe I can just accept my weakness with humility, and try again.

“Self-compassion can seem quite elusive at times, but since the wish to be happy and free from suffering is innate, it can’t be ignored forever; some measure of success is virtually guaranteed.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

imperfect complex
imperfect, complex,” © nosha (own work), Sep 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

21 thoughts on “Letting Go of Kindness – An Act of Self-Compassion

  1. Your experience with the little notebook makes a strong case for journaling. Our own memories of ourselves will not always be accurate, and to see the proof of how we were can be invaluable on our way forward. I hope you continue to accept yourself and keep trying again. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sue. I do love to journal. I keep a Moleskine journal on me all the time, but it’s too conspicuous to bring to the meetings. Since November 2014, I think I’ve filled up about 20 standard Moleskines and maybe 25 small ones. I don’t think I’d be nearly as grounded or self-aware if I didn’t. In the back of my current journal, I always keep a copy of the ten cognitive distortions in order to help me identify inaccurate thinking. It’s helpful to have the list, but those inaccurate thoughts are pretty sneaky! Do you keep a journal?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t kept a journal consistently for several years. I tried when my son was very young, but life, as they say, got in the way. I found time to write a musical for a children’s theatre group, but it was only when my son was older and we were going through a rough patch in his life, that I kept a small journal specific to the troubles. When that passed, I let the writing slide, too. Until about four years ago, when my writing partner and I spent a year writing the first book in a young adult scifi trilogy. Now I’m doing this and the “final” edit on the book so we can re-submit it to a requesting agent. I’ve reread a couple of my journals from my college days — lol — mostly, they were pretentious crap. I think your writing must be far more honest and meaningful than anything I wrote in my journals back then.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Congrats on your book! That’s huge! It sounds like you are spending lots of time writing, even if you don’t keep a journal in the traditional sense. I have a vague idea that someday it might be nice to write a sort of memoir, but I don’t really have any inclination to start anytime soon. I think part of the reason that I stack up so many journals is so that I’ll have some material to use later if I want to, but it’s also my way of just working through, well, pretty much everything.

        My journals back in middle school, HS, and college were drivel, I’m sure! Egocentric, convoluted, definitely not “honest,” but not intentionally dishonest. My thinking was so twisted and distorted! My first therapist told me, after a bunch of testing, “Well, you don’t have a personality *disorder* … But there are some personality *problems* there that are going to make this (my depression, and later my ED) harder to treat.” He wasn’t kidding!

        I love this quote by Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for your good wishes for the book. We know she could still take a pass, but we have a list of agents who could be excellent matches for us and our book. We plan to keep moving forward till i. been accepted by an agent.

        I agree journals are a good way to work through everything. Being research material is secondary. That is a wonderful quote! And even if we never read another book, it’s the living and the doing and the learning that lead us to know better.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing such a transparent and personal account. I love how you decided to be more gentle with yourself. That in itself is showing yourself kindness. The great thing is you have many opportunities throughout the day to do better next time. May I suggest making a list of the things that you admire about yourself? Focus on the positive aspects. If you find yourself listing negative things in the future, could you write them with a positive spin? For example, instead of writing what you lack, write that’s what you want to see more of in yourself? I can tell by getting to know you over the past few months that you aren’t one to settle. You are more kind than you’re giving yourself credit for and while it can take an undetermined amount of time to change or better ourselves, you aren’t the type of person that is complacent with staying stagnant. You are radiant, you are amazing, and you are growing into a better version of yourself everyday ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Niki. Thank you for your wonderful suggestions. I completely agree that it is more helpful to reframe how I think about myself in a more positive light than to dwell on what is wrong. In fact, what you describe – rewriting negatives with an alternative spin – is one of the foundations of DBT, which is the treatment approach that pretty much completely changed my way of thinking about myself, the world, and my everyday circumstances and made my recovery possible. I know that different treatment approaches work differently for different people, but that’s what worked for me. (Acceptance is another big part of that – and knowing the difference between acceptance and approval). One of the things I sometimes tell myself is, “Make a preferential option for the positive!” Which, to me, means I benefit from assigning a greater weight to the positive option/way of seeing things, in order to counterbalance my inherent skew to see things so critically. I say critically and not negatively, because I think that rather than being a cynic or a downer, I am more just very particular, discerning, focused, and observant, and I pick up on the slightest thing that is out of place or not quite right, like a movie or restaurant critic. Not always in a negative way, but there is the risk that it becomes negative. So to balance that out, I tell myself, “Why so serious!!!” And try to give greater weight to positive things.

      How’s that for a reframe? 😊

      Thanks so much for your positive presence! Your light radiates! Hope you have a happy weekend, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m so glad that’s something that works for you. It’s funny how we can even find a way to put a positive spin on what starts off as a negative thought. You have some really good ways of framing things to yourself. I hope that you continue to rephrase things in a positive way and remember to be gentle and accepting with and of yourself.

        Awww it’s my pleasure, I’m so happy we’ve connected! Have a great rest of your weekend Lulu ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Niki! I plan to keep trying! Hope you and your family have a wonderful end to your weekend, too, and here’s to a great week ahead.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t journal, but I do read past posts and even some old emails for a glimpse at where I was. The discovery was enough to stop me in my tracks at once, and adjust. That you think and feel so deeply about your place in this universe makes it a better place to share with you, Lulu.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I almost feel as though blogging serves the same function as journaling. It gives space and medium for processing thoughts. Isn’t it fascinating to see where you’ve been? When I go back and reread my past, it often is different from the way I remember it. How subjective and fallible our minds are! Thank you so much for your extremely generous comment. I am flattered and humbled. I see the same qualities in you, my friend. Grateful that you are here!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Technically, I do ‘morning pages’ (from Julia Cameron’s ‘the artists way’). That way, I don’t feel the pressure to write beautifully and know from the onset that my MPs are for ‘clearing’. ;_)

    There are times when I purposely re-read entries dated a year or two earlier just to see if there were any changes in my life/feelings/circumstances/etc since. As you found out, it sometimes gives clarity in certain life-situations.

    And, remember your own advice “Why so serious!!!” (given in a comment response)


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just had to look up what morning pages are. I never heard of that before, but what a great approach! I do most of my journaling in the morning as I eat breakfast, just to get my thoughts in order for the day. There’s not really much formality to my writing, but it’s probably a bit more organized than stream of conscious. Maybe I will try the morning pages way and see how I like it! Thanks for the suggestion.

      I’m working on a not-so-serious post at the moment. It’s a work in progress but should be ready soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I always figure that I need to lean into change. I used to want to hurry up and change some aspect of my life so that I could hurry up and change the next thing. Now I realize change, unless you are St. Paul, comes in increments and when it happens slowly the change sticks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautifully put, Bernadette! I think you are right in that the most meaningful changes of our lives are the gradual ones. (P.S. I love your name! Bernadette was the name of my mémère, who died when I was very little.)

      Liked by 1 person

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