For a long time, being kind to myself was not a part of my vocabulary. I didn't feel thin enough, smart enough or that I had enough money, time or material things, and the running commentary in my head was almost constantly negative. Never _________ enough. I could go on, as I am sure many of us could. Filling in the not enough blank is far too easy in a world where nearly every magazine, advertisement and business is based upon the assumption that we believe we are "not enough" in some way.
Motherhood compounded this for me, as I spent most nights the first few years of parenting with a laundry list swirling in my head of all the things I didn't do well enough that day. I was caught in a hamster wheel of wanting to do better, failing and then shaming myself for it. Not only did I feel "not enough", I had no tools to make a positive change.
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. ...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. ...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life. - Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money (as quoted in Daring Greatly by Brene Brown)
Finding Brené Brown's work was utterly life changing for me. I stumbled upon her Ted Talk, ordered The Gifts of Imperfection and began the slow work of digging myself out of the never enough hole. From her I learned all about shame and vulnerability and began to understand that shame was never going to get me where I wanted to go, if anything, shame only propelled the vicious cycle of lack that I was caught up in.
Identifying my values, and differentiating them from the ones I was being offered by the media helped to create a road map for how I wanted my life to look. With my values clear, I could see how my time, money and energy was either matching or not matching the values I held dear. And then, when I did the work of comparing my values to my day to day life, and inevitably found some discrepancies, I was challenged by Brown to move from shame (I am a mistake) to guilt (I made a mistake and I can make it better).
Central to this mindset shift was learning to speak to myself as I would someone I love. I would never tell a good friend "You are a terrible mother" because she got upset at her kids, but I regularly spoke to myself like that. If a friend phoned to tell me about a tough day I would always respond with empathy and compassion, assuring her that everyone has bad days, childcare is exhausting and she is a wonderful mother. Somehow, I never thought to speak to myself in the same way.
Learning to speak to myself with kindness had the counter-intuitive effect at eventually helping me to get better (slowly) at the things I hoped to improve upon,.
The difference is in guilt vs shame. Guilt (though we often think of it as a negative word) keeps us honest about our behaviour and whether or not it reflects our values. It offers us the space to make a better choice next time, to make amends and to grow, while shame is telling ourselves that we are hopeless, and that we aren't able to change.
I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values. - Brené Brown
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. - Brené Brown
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. - Brené Brown
So what does learning to reject shame, and instead practicing self-care and kindness look like?
In a practical sense being kind to myself means taking care of my physical needs in the way I would lovingly care for a child or pet. Wholesome food, exercise and outside time, plenty of rest, and time to play and engage in activities that leave me feeling refreshed (more on those in a future post) How often I have neglected these basic things for myself, and how awful that this kind of neglect is viewed as the norm in so many circles. Do I do all of these perfectly each day? No. But I no longer let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
In an internal sense, being kind to myself means meeting the thoughts and emotions that swirl around in my brain with kindness and non-judgement, and with curiosity and a willingness to lean into my vulnerability and figure out why I am feeling the way I do.
Being kind to myself doesn't mean throwing my hands up, becoming complacent and getting away with whatever I want (eating bonbons for dinner, being cranky with my family or a host of other things that don't align with my values) but rather that I, without shame, hold myself with kindness to the values that I hold dear, and when I fall short (as I do every day) I do not let negative thoughts of "not enough" or shame keep me from forgiving myself, and trying again.
A few questions I use to keep myself in a space of kindness to myself and integrity to my values are:
1. What would my best self do? If I am to act in alignment with my values, what would I do in this moment?
2. What is the next right thing to do? This phrase is all about forgiving myself for when I don't live up to my values every moment of the day, brushing myself off, and moving on to the next right decision, rather than getting caught up in a shame spiral.
And ultimately, I remember that everything, including being kind to myself is about progress not perfection. To take another piece of wisdom and inspiration for a daily practice from Brené Brown:
Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” - Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
How do you practice kindness to yourself? What roles are guilt and shame playing in your personal growth?