Do you remember those games of connect the dots?
I’m not sure if anyone even does this anymore, with smart phones, tablets, and other handheld devices so readily available.
God, that makes me sound old!
I’m whatever is older than a millennial and younger than a baby boomer. I remember life before the internet and even back to the days of humongous televisions and rotary phones.
But we used to play connect the dots on a sheet of paper when we were bored. Lately, I’ve been trying to connect the dots on why so many of us are capable of forgiving everyone but ourselves.
It seems like we easily extend second chances to others, and yet have little tolerance for our own mistakes. We find ourselves wallowing in shame and guilt for being human, but at the same time, we’ll be the strongest cheerleaders for our friends when they struggle.
We have so much love and compassion for others, even when they abuse it. Yet we have little patience or tolerance to extend to ourselves. I see it in my own life: how hard I am on myself when I make mistakes, how I struggle to get beyond the guilt and shame of having trusted the wrong people or made a poor choice.
I wonder sometimes where this starts. I trace the dots, trying to form a clearer picture. Where did I learn that it wasn’t okay to extend myself the same love and compassion? Are we born with that self-loathing? I remember holding my babies as newborns, and I couldn’t see that self-loathing in their perfection. I doubt any of us began forming that feeling of not being good enough so early in our lives. Perhaps we learned it in our homes or in the school system. But we do learn it. Our love for ourselves often seems forced, while our love for others seems to flow out naturally.
Perhaps we’ll never discover where it began. But we can learn to give ourselves the love and compassion we so freely give to others. We can start with becoming more aware of the things that we say to ourselves. When we notice negative self-talk, we can make an effort to stop it in its tracks.
In the early stages of practicing this compassion, we may need to begin with the fake it ’til you make it mentality. We can tell ourselves what we would tell our friends in the same situation, even if we don’t entirely believe it. We can be our own cheerleaders, giving ourselves encouragement and support rather than criticism and a big, fat guilt trip like we might normally do.
We also need to stop holding ourselves to unrealistic standards as well as to standards set by someone else. We’re human. Being human means that we’ll certainly learn from trial and error at times. Somehow we think that this means something negative about us, but learning from natural consequences is the most normal thing in the world. It’s how we learned as babies and toddlers, and it’s how we learn now. But we think we should know, and therefore do, better. It’s just not realistic, and we’d never hold our loved ones to the same standard.
Then there are the standards we’re holding ourselves to that have nothing to do with who we are as people or our own personal values. These standards are the ones that we adopt because we think we should. They may come from a religious upbringing, family values, or from society as a whole. While it’s great that we don’t steal, kill, lie, cheat, or do anything unethical, a lot of our standards seem to revolve around more intangible ideas of how we’re supposed to live. Maybe we choose one career over another because of how it’s perceived. We can even do the same with potential partners. We twist ourselves into shapes that aren’t natural to us and wonder why we’re so hard on ourselves when we fail.
We need to learn to let go of the standards set for us by someone else. That desire to “people please” and earn approval can be self-destructive. It’s also not indicative of healthy relationships. In healthy relationships, people will be pleased with us when we live authentically and strive for happiness. They won’t expect us to conform to their way of thinking in order to show love and support. Relationships that operate in constant disapproval are relationships that need to come to an end or have much stronger boundaries placed on them.
It’s hard to love ourselves deeply when we’re holding on to standards that aren’t authentic for us. It’s hard to practice compassion when we can’t love ourselves deeply. When we have that love and compassion for ourselves, it becomes easier to tell ourselves good things when we mess up rather than that endless litany of negativity. It becomes natural to forgive ourselves as easily as we do others.
Once we’ve learned to practice that level of love, compassion, and forgiveness for our own humanity, we can maintain that healthy sense of self-worth by practicing self-care. We can work with nourishing rituals to help care for our minds, bodies, and souls each day. By showing ourselves that kind of love and attention, we’ll be in a better position to react with understanding when we do something that steps outside of our value system.
Perhaps our discomfort stems from so much attention on ourselves. Self-love. Self-care. Compassion and forgiveness for ourselves. I know that I was brought up to put others first, as if self-sacrifice was the only value worth having. I was also brought up thinking that a focus on the self could only be considered self-centered, or selfish. But what is wrong with being self-centered? Shouldn’t we all have ourselves at the center of our own lives? Many of us were raised perceiving this as being deeply uncaring and unethical, but I think we’ve been looking at it wrong.
Healthy self-esteem doesn’t mean that we disregard others. Possessing a healthy sense of self-worth doesn’t mean that we’re inconsiderate or incapable of helping others. It only means that we feel good about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves (in a healthy way, not wearing the blinders of narcissism), we often are in a better place to love and support others.
We become better parents, better friends, and better family members. We can be better neighbors and community members. When we’re happy and confident, we’re more likely to radiate that outward. On the other hand, when we have poor self-worth, we might be more likely to be less compassionate of others or stressed to the point that we’re unable to reach out and be a helper in our friend groups or communities.
We’ve formed this idea of caring for ourselves as being innately wrong, and that idea is blocking our ability to befriend ourselves. But we can become aware of the ways in which we put ourselves down. We can make an effort to stop that. Then we can stop holding ourselves to unrealistic standards of our own or someone else’s making. We can practice self-care from a place of healthy self-esteem. When we do these things, we may find it so much easier to be loving, compassionate, and even forgiving toward ourselves when we’re less than perfect.
Bonus: How to Bike Every Day.