It was the end of a long day. I’m nowhere near being a computer techie, but I decided that I could follow a step by step youtube video to build this website. After way too many hours of slogging it out, it was going pretty well. I was proud of myself. I could see results. And then, I forgot to update what I was working on. Easy mistake to make. But I did it a second time, and to all appearances, it looked like I had lost everything.
I watched myself as the expletives—directed at myself—came out of my mouth. How could I be so stupid! What is wrong with me!? What made me think I could do this on my own. What an idiot! I was withering in my self-judgment and condemnation.
Admittedly, I was at the end of my tether, totally stressed out by pushing myself beyond my capacities. And yet from whence this voice that was so unmerciful?
Do you know this voice? If my wife had come to me having done something like this, I would have held her close, tried to calm her down. I would have asked her if she wanted me to take a look. No doubt some comforting words. Do you know what it’s like to treat yourself in a way that you’d never treat somebody you loved?
Think about that last sentence for a moment, because the issue really is about self-love and compassion. Unmerciful self-punishment isn’t natural. It’s learned. Maybe in the home growing up. Or at school. Or playing sports. The earlier we were told, directly or with gestures, that we are hopeless, no good for nothing wastes of space, the more impressionable and therefore the deeper the message goes.
If we shamed for making “mistakes” (by whose standards?), or for failing to live up to the (often unspoken) expectations of those in authority, we learn to internalize the voice of judgment. We become our own worst enemies. When we make a mistake—usually trivial to an outside observer—we default to a shame response, only this time we self-administer the shame. By the time we’re adults we don’t need anybody else to condemn us. We’re experts ourselves.
One of the central goals of a psychotherapeutic journey is to bring to consciousness the historical voices of condemnation, to get them outside of us where we can look at them objectively, and come to understand how unfair and unnecessary were the voices of condemnation. We understand that this trauma of hatred has been passed down for generations, and we’re only its latest recipient. And…we become motivated to end it, here and now.
We do that by developing compassion for the little guy or girl inside of us that was so shamed. My mentor, Andrew Feldmar, points out that if we were given tasks or experienced expectation—covert or overt—that were beyond our developmental level, our only recourse is to experience shame as a signal that we’ve been pushed too far. If the signal is not picked up on, the shame becomes entrenched, and we feel that we are bad. Knowing this we can begin to love ourselves again, see our “mistakes” and failures for what they are—evolutionary attempts to take our next, best step. We can learn to “fail bravely”, and love ourselves for the exhibiting the courage to try new things and risk new behaviours.
I distinctly remember the moment when I felt self-compasion come on line. I was outside in the pitch dark, lying on my back, looking up at the clear skies. The stars seemed like my allies, shining love down on me. I had been intentionally allowing some very difficult memories to surface, and then it happened. I felt such deep compassion for myself. I imagined holding myself. Words of comfort flowed from my lips. The weight of the world lifted. I felt, for the first time in my life, that the universe was for me. When the voice of self-judgment drops away, a natural love toward self and other arises.
It should be apparent that self-love is not narcissistic. It’s actually the remedy for narcissism. As long as we’re unsure of our belovednessd, we’ll recruit the whole world, over and over again, in the hopeless project of proving that we matter. We will never be able to see the world clearly, but only as an object that we hope will fill our unconscious deficit. This is why self-love is the root of healing. It breaks the desperate cycle of feeling we need to prove ourselves as worthy.