By: Sierra Parham-Gantt
Even before I got formally diagnosed, I felt that there was something intrinsically wrong with me and that I was defective. I blamed myself for everything that ever happened to me, including childhood trauma. I knew rationally that it wasn’t my fault and that I was just a child, but I had convinced myself that I was responsible. On top of that, depression whispered in my ear, constantly, telling me that I was a burden to others and that I was “too much” to handle. It was like a melancholy song replaying in my head, singing, “you are unlovable.” Eventually, I began believing that I was not worthy of lasting fulfilling relationships.
I doubted that anyone would want to form a connection with me because of my emotional baggage. I thought, “Who would want to put up with all of my crap?” From an early age, I strove for perfection in all that I did, from grades to relationships. I felt that if I did everything right, I would be accepted and worthy of love.
Initially I didn’t identify these feeling and thoughts as shame because I wasn’t afraid be open and honest about my struggles. That is why I became a Recovery Support Specialist. However, after reading Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, I realized how shame held me back from forming meaningful relationships. Brene Brown describes shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience or belief that we are flawed and therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.”
So, it was at that point I decided to take a long hard look at myself and be honest. I was ashamed of what happened to me growing up. I was ashamed of all of the mistakes I made. I was ashamed of having a mental illness. I was ashamed of me.
I began to dig in, find the root, and pluck it. I realized that the antidote to healing this shame was to develop self-compassion. Self-compassion is the ability to be kind and understanding towards ourselves, it means accepting ourselves, and releasing self-critical and judgmental thoughts and beliefs about ourselves.
One hurdle that I experienced on my way to cultivating self-compassion was the “yes, but.” Whenever I would evaluate a situation or experience, I would acknowledge my part, be understanding, but I would not allow myself to feel sympathy. Extending compassion felt as if I were absolving myself of responsibility and accountability. But, I soon learned that having compassion for myself actually meant not criticizing myself for my thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. I had to consider all of the factors that contributed to my response in the moment and recognize that I did my best at the time-which allows me to see how I can improve in the future. This grants me freedom from the guilt and self-blame. I now use my “mistakes” or learning experiences as tools for improvement. Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance said it best, “we cannot punish ourselves into being a good person.”
For so long I focused on my deficits and my flaws, but I learned how to break free from this habit. I will describe to you six ways that I cultivated self-compassion.
1. Repeating Affirmations
Through repetition of these critical thoughts, we have convinced ourselves that we are unworthy, unlovable, and not good enough. Therefore, the same way we developed these beliefs is the same way that we can challenge these beliefs. Whenever we catch ourselves criticizing or judging ourselves, we can recite affirmations to counter these thoughts. When I repeat my affirmations, I sometimes place my hand on my heart and acknowledge and speak to my pain. I say: I see you, I hear you, I feel you, and I love you. There are many lists of affirmations online or you can create your own. When writing your own affirmations, make them personal, positive, and something you can grow to believe.
Mindfulness is being aware and present in the moment. Mindfulness helps by allowing us to recognize when we are having self-critical thoughts and judgments. When we recognize these thoughts, we can stop and then replace them (with affirmations) immediately. With practice, this becomes easier and more instinctive.
There are many apps and videos on YouTube that offer guided meditations. One meditative exercise that helps cultivate self-compassion is metta or loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is a meditative practice in which you extend compassion for yourself, your loved ones, people you may have difficulty with, and ultimately others in the world. The typical loving-kindness meditation consists of affirmations to repeat as your envision each of these people.
4. Making a List of Positive Qualities
Make a list of all of your positive qualities, of all of the things that you like about yourself. If it is hard to come up with some qualities, consult a loved one. Ask them what they like about you. Reflect on this list whenever you begin to criticize or judge yourself.
5. Seeing myself through the eyes of a loved one
We are our harshest critics, so, it can be helpful to view ourselves from someone else’s perspective, especially that of a loved one. By considering how our loved ones see us, we take off the self-critical and judgmental lenses. We are less biased and more understanding, gentle, and supportive towards ourselves. We can see our innate goodness. It may even be helpful to think of a higher power, something greater than yourself, a divine being that is compassionate and that loves unconditionally.
When we feel shame, we can hold ourselves to our mistakes. Sometimes, I find myself replaying things that I’ve said or done wrong, over and over my head, like a bad movie. Therefore, it can be hard for me to let things go. However, when I find myself caught in this loop, I have to remember that the past is the past and there is nothing I can do to change it. I also have to realize that I did the best I could in the moment and in the future I can make different, better choices. Most importantly, though, I must remember that I am human and humans make mistakes. To start the process of self-forgiveness, it may be helpful to write a letter of forgiveness to yourself.
Self-compassion is self-liberation. We free ourselves from the negative narratives that we have told ourselves. We all have flaws, but we should not use them against ourselves. We are worthy, we are enough, and we are perfectly imperfect.
I’ll leave you with this affirmation: “I am enough, as is, without change.”