I can’t write about self-compassion without acknowledging one of the biggest barriers to it in my life…perfectionism. Ahhhhhhh, perfectionism, my old, familiar companion. There’s a great quote from the ever-fabulous Brene Brown that goes “when perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver.” This basically sums up the past few years for me and as I move away from perfectionism, I’d like to share my experience of having it in the driver’s seat. Because it is also true that when all the seats in the car are filled up with perfectionism, shame, anxiety and fear, there’s not much room for self-compassion to ride along.
I caught up with a good friend a few weeks ago and we talked about lots of stuff. She is wise and compassionate and also prone to anxiety, so naturally enough, we talked about that too. I told her that I thought I needed to be more self-compassionate but was having trouble accessing it in a practical sense. “What’s the block, do you think?” she asked me and I swear, my brain shut down and went completely empty. If someone could’ve done a brain scan on me at that moment, I think you might have seen a tumbleweed of two blow through. I stared helplessly at my friend and managed a faint “I dunno.”
In the car on the way home though, the tumbleweeds blew away and left the answer cruelly exposed – shame. I realised that I was ashamed of my anxiety and predictably, this initiated a string of thoughts that were the absolute antithesis of self-compassion. Somewhere along the lines of “oh my god, that is SO STUPID to be ashamed when I work with people ALL THE TIME who have anxiety and I feel nothing but compassion…in fact, my compassion is bigger BECAUSE I get how lonely and terrifying and soul-destroying anxiety is. How can I be ASHAMED?! That’s so irrational and ridiculous.”
I let it play itself out in my mind while I waited for truth to speak, and it was a tough lesson. Because it’s true, I feel deep compassion for people I speak to who experience anxiety and I want nothing more than to help and comfort them (and I think occasionally, I do). But at the same time, I have this deep belief that I shouldn’t have anxiety myself. I should know better, be stronger, have superior coping strategies. And I carry deep shame about it…although, even as I write this, I can feel the grip of the shame loosening.
Someone wise once told me that shame can only survive in secrecy and shadows. As soon as you speak it and shine a light on it, he said, it turns into something else. Since I realised that I’ve been ashamed of my anxiety, I’ve spoken to a few people about it and the resounding response has been “oh good on you for realising! Now you can do something about it” (thank you to everyone who said this and variations of this to me when I was groping in the dark).
The place to start, I think, is the place where all those pesky “shoulds” come from. The place that breeds the feeling that I should be better, stronger, smarter. The place that says that although it’s OK for other people to be anxious, I should be managing it better. And that place, as you may have guessed, is perfectionism; my lifelong frenemy.
I grew up with a Dad who was a master craftsman. On the wall of his workshop/studio, was a sign that said “Perfection is nearly good enough” and somehow, somewhere along the way, I internalised that message (I don’t blame Dad for that, by the way – it was all me). Perfection is an unattainable goal for us humans, who are fallible and prone to mistakes – that’s how we learn. So, striving for perfection is the worst kind of cruelty and the actual opposite of self-compassion. Not only that, but it breeds anxiety in the worst way.
So how to overcome perfectionism and all its nasty companions? Well, I started by writing a sign on my own workshop/studio wall. It says “Perfection is a ridiculous goal. I am good enough.” I’ve also used that as a mantra in meditation a few times and my relief is palpable.
I believe the real answer is self-compassion, and in my quest to understand it better, I consulted Juliana Bartulin, a local mindfulness practitioner who works intensively around self-kindness practices. She draws on research as well as ancient knowledge and I did a series of session with her which changed my heart in beautiful ways. Now when anxiety arises, I don't fight it with "shoulds". Instead, I say to myself (silently, mostly) "I love you no matter what. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
As Juliana advised, I'm doing my best to "love myself fiercely, no matter what". Even if anxiety is raging or fear is driving or shame is looming - that's what "no matter what" means...that we are kind to ourselves even in those moments when we fear ourselves to be the least lovable. Especially in those moments.
And hooray - Juliana has agreed to write a guest blog post about self-compassion for us, which will be the next in this series...stay tuned xx
P.S I’m not going to proofread this blog post a thousand times like I usually do, and if there are mistakes, errors and typos, I do not apologise for them – they are signs of my healing.
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