"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change." ~Carl Rogers
Most of us, live with stories in our head that there is something wrong with us, that we are not good enough or that we are shameful! The healing begins when we see that rehashing these stories is demoralising as they do not bring out the best in us. The “not being enough” stories are actually destructive, sabotaging our best efforts. Instead, we can adopt a practice of choosing again, to accept ourselves okay as we are. We are perfectly imperfect! Work in progress! Rather than focus on what we are not, we can begin to appreciate what is good in us, as starting blocks to improve.
We continually want to make sense of our world and so we tell ourselves stories that seems to explain the events in our lives. They arise in our mind and shape our perspectives about reality. There are stories we take from our families when we grew up, stories from our culture, personal stories about who we are. Those stories are a mixed of facts, judgments and assumptions. They are often exaggerated in some ways. The stories that overly focus on failures and inadequacies, devaluate efforts and talents and will be limiting, reducing our confidences while creating undue anxieties and struggles. However, the stories that focus on the successes, the abilities and the strengths will be encouraging, motivating and empowering.
We feed unhelpful stories by continually monitoring ourselves: “How I am doing?” Then the negative judgments start: “I am not as good as so and so. I should do this better. I am hopeless. I am useless”. We tell ourselves that we are not being a good enough worker, partner, parent and friend. We are not looking good enough or not being intelligent enough or not confident enough. There is always something not good enough to dwell on! Meanwhile, we feel inadequate and defective creating undue anxieties. Over time those stories of not being good enough can lead to self-loathing, depression and even drive some to suicide.
Often those stories are based on emotionally charged memories that we have been buried for a long time. It is very natural to replay those old stories but we can begin to view those stories in a different way, to recognize how unhelpful they are in their perspective and how they can keep us stuck into unhelpful habits of emotional reacting. As we practice mindfulness, we become able to recognize the negative self-judgments in the stories without getting lost in the mental drama and to attend in a non-reactive way to the difficult feelings associated with them. Of course, we believe our stories wholeheartedly but we can start thinking that maybe, just maybe, there is another way to perceive those events. We can explore ways to re-tell the stories in a way that is more understanding and kind. Through those stories we can begin to choose not to condemn ourselves, but rather to accept ourselves as we are and to see ourselves realistically, that is to appreciate our strengths as well as our shortcomings. We can learn to trust that we are okay, not perfect, but still okay, worthwhile and loveable. We can find a way to hold ourselves with compassion after all those years of thinking that we are defective.
Self-inquiry: is it true, helpful, kind and pointing to a solution?
Even after we decide to accept ourselves as we are, harsh inner criticisms will continue. They are strong thinking habits, so what is key is to first become aware each time, being mindful, stepping back from the thoughts so we don’t feed the unhelpful stories. We can ask ourselves questions like: Is this story true, helpful, kind and pointing to a solution? And then choose a way of re-telling the story along those lines where we are more accurate.
In becoming aware and conscious we can choose the stories we tell ourselves that are empowering. Saying something like: “I am not that bad! It is okay to make mistakes, I can learn from them. What would I like to do next time that is better?”. Or you can wish yourself well by saying something like: “May I accept myself as I am. May I make peace with this and see my own goodness. May I figure out a way to do better next time”.
We have grown up with unhelpful stories that are deeply entrenched in our mind. But with awareness, one moment at the time and one story at the time, we can begin to change our perspectives to transform them into more helpful stories. We can withdraw our beliefs in our self-demeaning stories, letting go of the unhelpful judgments and we can stop comparing ourselves to others to our detriment.
It will take dedication and practice. We have told ourselves those unhelpful stories a thousand times, so we need to re-tell more helpful stories a thousand times to undo our conditioning. The good news is that the more you change the self-critical stories, the easier it becomes. We can begin to tell ourselves stories of acceptance, of understanding and of self-compassion. In so doing we feel stronger and more resilient.
We can deal with the feelings and consequences of our actions with awareness and acceptance without undue negative judgments. We can first acknowledge and face what is as it is, not beating ourselves up for being who we are, but instead seeking understanding and viable solutions. Reminding ourselves that emotions are the results of complex interactions between our thoughts, surroundings and sensations in the body.
Short mindfulness practice
We know that judgments, inner criticisms and unhelpful stories will arise in our mind. And when we notice those thinking patterns, we become curious, we check in for the associated sensations in the body and the emotions. We explore in our body the sensations associated with the feelings. We notice how the thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go like the waves, peaking and receding.
The mindful practice is to first become aware when we are judging ourselves harshly when we are engaging in those stories of inadequacies and failings. Secondly, we stop, to distance ourselves from those stories, to make a space by becoming the observer. Thirdly, we pause to come up for a breath of fresh air to see the truth of the goodness that is in ourselves realising that what is key is to learn from our mistakes.
For instance, I might recognise my tendency to compare myself to others, thinking how much better someone else is. So, in the moment when it happens,
1. I become aware of the familiar story of comparing myself, then rather than automatically engaging with the story I pause, I become present, saying something like: “I see you, the story of comparing myself again!”
2. I turn my attention to my body exploring the feelings that are here with acceptance and non-judgment. Asking myself: Where do I feel this in my body? Scanning my body for the sensations of tightness or heaviness in my jaws, neck, shoulders, chest or back.
3. I turn to my feelings: asking myself “what is here”: is there Shame? Fear? Irritability?
4. So, I skilfully notice the stories in my mind but I do not get caught up with them and instead I attend to myself with curiosity and kindness.
5. I turn to myself as a friend, finding the words to support and encourage myself.
In this way, we are changing our relationship to ourselves. Developing a kinder more supportive relationship like a good coach to inspire us, to see our goodness and to encourage us to act in ways that reflect who we really want to be.
Being our own best friend
We can give ourselves the acceptance and the love that we desire from others. We can give ourselves the unconditional positive regards that we ask from others. We can become more and more the friend that we wish for ourselves in our own mind. And in our moment of struggles, of loneliness can we turn to ourselves with kindness and understanding, the way we ourselves would support a friend.
We may be more or less aware of stories or self-talks. Instead, we feel that we have done something wrong or that we are a failure and inadequate. This could be felt as a heavy feeling in our shoulders or in our chests. When this happened, we can turn to ourselves with kindness practising the mindful self-compassion break as followed:
1. Pause and becoming aware in the body of tension or heaviness
2. Recognise our struggle and validate it. Turn to ourself with empathy
3. Relax and soothe ourselves with a slow exhale or a soothing comforting touch
4. Recognize that others are struggling like us. Others are experiencing similar difficulties and reacting just like us. We are not alone in our struggles.
5. Talk to ourselves in a way that is supportive like we would want to support and encourage a good friend
Re-write the story: compassionate writing
If you like journaling you could write the story “of not being good enough” as you have been telling yourself so often. Write it down and then after a while read it again and explore how self-critical and unsupportive you are to yourself.
Now see if you can modify the story as you try adopting the perspective of a friend. Imagining that you have a friend in the exact same situation, write down what you would say to your friend. Can you re-write the story with more understanding, empathy and perspective? You could write by including the following statements such as: “this situation was so difficult for you… It was not your fault… you did not know any better at the time… you did not know how to avoid the problem… other people also find themselves in situations like this…you did your best at the time… there were many factors outside your control… you did not do as bad as you think… you are okay… let’s have a plan… you are making progress… keep on trying…”
In doing this you are exploring ways to write a narrative that is empathic, supportive and encouraging. When you finish, leave your writing for a few minutes, go for a walk or have a glass of water and then come back to read it again. How does it feel? Can you let yourself soak in the good words!
Just like everyone else!
We can be aware of our shortcoming and still wish to improve but we can do this from the standpoint that we are worthy human beings. Like everyone one else we suffer, we struggle, we make mistakes. We are not alone in our imperfection or feelings of unworthiness. We can adopt a balanced view of our strengths as well as of our failings. I can say something to myself like: “I am not all bad, there is goodness in me, I have good intentions, I have done some good things!”
We can accept better our lives as they unfold, more easily by saying “yes” to what is there for us, accepting the difficult and being present for the good moments. Not to be so absorbed in the stories of our difficulties, that we miss the “good times”. Life is bitter and sweet, there are good moments and difficult moment. We can instead tell stories of gratitude, of appreciation for the good in ourselves, in our lives and in others.
The antidote to the unhelpful stories is to hold ourselves with acceptance, kindness and compassion, to see clearly what is happening as it is while recognising that we are beautiful, loveable and imperfect all at the same time, just like everyone else.
We can focus on our strengths to gain confidence, looking where we want to be, setting goals. By being more focused on seeing the good in ourselves we can also be more open to seeing what is good in others around us. So as we turn down our inner critic, we see ourselves and others in a new light: we improve our relationships with ourselves and others. Everyone benefit! We change our story to change our life!