Being kind to yourself
A friend of mine, Jill, struggles with shame and guilt over several bad choices she made in the last few years. They had major consequences for her career. She’s angry with herself— “How could I have messed things up so badly for myself and my family” she cries. She wakes up every morning feeling bad about herself and it propels her down a rabbit hole of deeper depression and self-reproach. Once she goes there, it’s hard to find her way out.
We all make small mistakes or errors in judgment. Fortunately, most of these choices don’t result in big consequences. But sometimes we make whoppers, and the unanticipated results can be vast. In those instances, adults can become immobilized by guilt and humiliation.
But most of the time we get ourselves into trouble in small increments. We start sliding down the roof one inch a time and we only realize that we are in trouble when we are hanging on to the edge of the roof by our fingertips! A few extra servings of ice cream here and there somehow turn into a 10 lb. weight gain over 6 months! Spending a few extra dollars on a regular basis for shoes and new clothing turn into a $5000 credit card balance over the course of a year. Jim found himself going to gym less and less often and then six months later found himself out of breath on a hike. He hadn’t been exercising at all for months.
So how do we react to the larger consequences of smaller missteps? How do we handle mistaken judgements or decisions that turn out 180 degrees from where we hoped they would go?
- Cultivate self-kindness. Many of us are kind to our friends and family when they experience misfortune or make mistakes, but are critical and judgmental of ourselves. It’s helpful to treat ourselves with the same kindness and generosity of spirit that we extend to others—no more, but no less.
- Cultivate self-compassion. Many adults feel isolated when life goes upside down. They feel alone and tend to withdraw from others. Self-compassionate individuals realize that we are all in the same boat—and it can be pretty leaky. None of us are perfect. They are able to reach out to others.
- Cultivate mindfulness. When negative feelings knock on our door, many adults find themselves either intensifying these feelings or trying to suppress them. It is more helpful to acknowledge these feelings and adopt a more neutral attitude towards them. This is easier said than done! It is more natural to find oneself throwing a major pity party when the credit card bill with big numbers arrive in the mail.
- Cultivate self-forgiveness. This is particularly hard for individuals that hold themselves to standards that may be unrealistic. Adult growth and development can be three steps forward and then two steps back. We are all works in progress.
- Live in the present. Everything that has happened up to now and everything that I have done up to this moment is unchangeable. I can’t go back in time and do anything different or chart a changed course. There is only one thing that I can do about the past—learn from it. This is why we study history. We can learn from our past mistakes and use that knowledge today.
Learning from our past choices and actions and applying that knowledge in the present in the form of new behavior is what we call wisdom. When we do this, we are more fully able to forgive ourselves.