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My body sunk into the sofa as I watched the next tear make its descent from my chin to my checkered scarf.
I feel immobile.
“Kaitlin, you need to talk to yourself like you would to a friend,” my therapist asserted.
I heard her.
I understood her.
Still, it felt like I was being told to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with flip-flops and a prayer.
In the “late 20s” season of my life, it felt like a kaleidoscope of clarity had been secured in front of my eyes, showcasing only unfortunate memories that my survival brain had cast aside.
My newly developed frontal lobe kicked down the door of repressed memories and flashbacks of moments that I never wished to see. Viewing my adolescent, teen, and early twenties with newfound maturity evoked more questions than answers.
Why did I say that to her?
Was I really that lazy?
Why did I call out of work? Didn’t I respect anyone’s time?
A flood of deprecation without redemption befell me. Nights were spent lying awake, saturated with regrets for events that I was recalling either more clearly or for the first time.
It was an awakening that robbed me of my sleep.
I teetered between the idea of reaching out to people who I may have hurt with my words or actions and rescinding that with the realization that too much time had passed.
I suffered panic attacks.
One night, on my way out the door to teach a Zumba class, my hands shook while I tied my sneakers. My heart raced; sweat bullets adorned my hairline. My back was pressed up against the wall. I slid to the floor of my mudroom, where I was reduced to a puddle of tears, gasps, and shame.
I can’t go; I can’t face people. I can’t go; I’m already late. Everyone will be looking at me the whole class. I don’t want to be looked at—I don’t want to exist.
My helpless husband handed me water and rubbed my back while meta-emotions commanded my consciousness.
The voice inside my head was ruthless, vile, and unforgiving; it was relentless in dropping a crane full of shame bricks onto the rubble that I had become.
Most of the time, it manifested in invisible crucifixions. Some of the time, the pain seeped out of me in ways I couldn’t hide.
One night at dinner, I refused to eat. I stared at my plate with hopeless disdain. My husband’s gaze stretched across the table to my fidgeting fork.
“Come on, babe, just eat,” he pleaded.
“No, I don’t deserve to eat.”
I retired myself to our bedroom, where I shut everything off: the lights, my phone, my emotions. Moments in my past when I was angry or dishonest or had embarrassed myself in social settings consumed me—constantly.
My only response to these memories was to punish myself. I refused to repeat those behaviors; I couldn’t allow myself to be who I was when I was younger.
I overcompensated by performing in every aspect of my life.
I viewed myself as a bad person; the only way I could combat that was to say yes to everyone and everything.
If people are happy with me—I can be happy with myself.
I had to be the best wife, daughter, Zumba instructor, employee, friend, and dog mom. I had to be the most physically fit and keep the cleanest house—even if it killed me.
I was exhausted from the pressure; my mind was always running on overdrive. I was pretending, performing, and prolonging my pain.
Never once throughout those shame spirals did I ever allow myself to consider the context. I didn’t look back at the time I called out of work and considered the crippling depression I felt when I made that phone call.
I didn’t look back at the time I went out drinking as a teen and consider the trauma at home that I was escaping from.
I didn’t offer myself credit for not actively making the decisions I was denouncing myself for in the present.
I was trapped inside of an iron maiden—torturing myself by pushing self-hatred deeper into my core.
I knew my only escape was to heed my therapist’s advice: be my own friend. I didn’t know how to start. I only tried to practice it in individual moments.
When I could feel my body slowing down and giving up at the end of a long day, I allowed myself to rest without labeling myself as lazy.
When I couldn’t find the time or energy to cook for my husband, I ordered takeout without guilt.
When I didn’t have the interest or energy to commit to plans, I gave myself permission for the first time in my life to say no without assuming the person inviting me would write me off.
I began, gradually, to remind myself that who I was when I was making decisions that I wasn’t proud of didn’t have the resources to know or do better. The lens I was viewing her with was far too zoomed in to notice the conditions around her.
She didn’t know how much pain she was in.
The stability in my life allowed me to acknowledge my trauma for the first time. I was becoming aware that the criticism I was doling out to myself for not knowing how to address that pain wasn’t serving me; it wasn’t until I extended compassion toward myself that I began to notice a change.
This—with intentional empathy toward myself over time—is how I unlocked my iron maiden with maitri: love or loving-kindness. Maitri also means loving-kindness to oneself and is the foundation of the four Buddhist virtues: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.”
Maitri happens in the moments. It’s present every time I refuse to judge myself poorly; it’s present every time I advocate for myself; it’s present every time I voice my needs, it’s present every time I acknowledge my own truth and fulfill my own promises.
Whenever I know that I have done the best that I could do in my job, in my friendships, or in my relationships—I give myself the space to rest.
Whenever I recognize that I could have done something better in a situation that has passed—I give myself the grace to do better in the future.
Whenever I make a mistake, I honor myself with the room to grow and improve.
I have taken an interest in what I’ve been called to do for the first time in my life, and I carve out time in my life to flex my creativity. I beam from ear to ear every time I strum the ukulele that I never believed I could learn to play. I release a sigh of relief every time I lift my fingers from my keyboard after “writing my heart out” for my new Elephant Academy course.
Through repetition, I’ve achieved self-love in the practice of maitri.
If I’m happy with myself, I can be happy with others.
I realized through offering myself the same compassion I give to the people I love that I didn’t need to do more or to be more; I needed to be more, to do more for others.