October 9, 2019

Tigers Above, Tigers Below: Lessons in Self-Love from Pema Chödrön & Brené Brown.

I’m a good person.

I walk dogs at a local no-kill shelter before I go to work each day. If I choose to go out to lunch at work, I will offer lunch to the first homeless person I see.

I ooze compassion and empathy. I recycle everything I possibly can. I conserve water.

But love myself? How can I love myself when I screw something up?

I have read many beautiful articles about self-love from fellow Elephant Journal authors, including this one, this one, and one of my favorites.

I completely understand the basic path: set boundaries, learn to say no, look after ourselves…yadda, yadda, yadda. And overall I’d say I like myself most of the time. Most.

The one I love and I are working on renovating a school bus to live in full-time with two dogs and two cats. I work Monday through Friday in an office. I have never been good with tools. I fixed my own toilet (once) and installed a new shower head, and am damn proud of those accomplishments.

Building out a bus from the bottom up is a whole new thing though. I am not confident that I possess the necessary skills to do any of this, and I basically have no clue about most of what is necessary. Luckily, my partner is more skilled at these tasks than I am, though we are both unsure of what exactly we are doing at times.

My history of doing hands-on projects is minimal. My parents tried to involve me, but it usually ended in a short “just let me do it,” as I was becoming a hindrance to their progress. My mind just doesn’t always see things the necessary way to complete some tasks. I screw things up and instead of being able to shake it off, I let it grow into a dark, scary shadow that envelopes me in its icy grip.

I’m currently testing some burning, staining, and painting techniques on wood for our bus walls. The burning didn’t come out how I wanted it to. The diluted paint looked horrible. The straight paint looked horrible. I haven’t been successful at creating this vision I see in my head, and so those words come back to me: “Just let me do it.”

I do not love myself, I do not like myself, in fact, I hate myself in this moment. I hate that my aptitude for completing some things is nonexistent. It just keeps building from there. I hate myself for putting these expectations on myself. I hate myself because my body hurts after a weekend of working on the bus.

I hate myself.

And I realize I need to find my own path to love myself. To help me, I enlist the wisdom of two women I admire most: Pema Chödrön and Brené Brown.

Brené Brown seems to see into my soul. “Talk to yourself like you would someone you love” is one of my favorite quotes. It is also one of the hardest for me to think about, much less follow. I find it easy to give, but to give to myself is much like receiving, which I am not so good at.

Why don’t I love myself? Well, because I am imperfect.

Brown calls perfectionism an armor: “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun, and fear is the annoying backseat driver.” She explains this so simply in that perfectionism is strongest in those areas where we feel shame.

Shame. Another big reason why I don’t love myself. As a child, when I was “excused” from helping my parents with various projects around the house, the result was shame. Shame of not being good enough. Shame of not being worthy or lovable—not worthy of love, especially self-love.

Shame, per Brown, is the swampland of the soul. You’re not good enough. Your dad never paid attention. But the critic, the one pointing and laughing, is us.

So, for me, the difficulty in finding self-love is shame, and empathy is the antidote to that shame.

We need to understand and know what triggers our shame. We need to talk to ourselves like we would talk to someone we love. We need to reach out to someone we trust and share our story. Shame cannot survive being spoken to and met with empathy.

I am learning what triggers my shame, what makes me feel less—less of me, less loved, less worthy. By stopping and taking a deep breath, closing my eyes, I can bring myself into the present.

In her article, “Three Methods for Working with Chaos,” Pema Chödrön states: “The place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and in our lives where we can really learn something. The point where we are not able to take it or leave it…that is indeed a very fruitful place.” She goes on to say that we should imagine what occurred—whatever triggered this shame for us—and just be there, in the moment, with that raw and tender energy.

“We start by working with the monsters in our mind. Then we develop the wisdom and compassion to communicate sanely with the threats and fears of our daily life. Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go to the places that scare you.”

The monster in my mind is shame, which leads to hating myself. In learning my triggers for shame, I can then—in that moment of squeeze—give it a reality check, and go to those places that scare me. Living a life of shame and fear are those places that scare me.

The story below from Chödrön brings me peace in knowing that it’s okay to just be in that moment and accept the shame above and fear below, as the tigers are in this story. Every moment is precious and I shall learn not to waste moments in shame and fear, but rather to embrace what scares me and love it—as I will love myself.


“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer.

When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”

~ Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World


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