When was the last time you messed up? Did you miss a meeting? Lose your friend’s beloved book? Forget to hire a babysitter for that long-awaited date with your husband? Fail to show up to drive your son’s team to practice?
Who was more upset by your mistake? The colleagues you accidentally stood up? Your friend? Your husband? Or your son’s coach?
Or was it you?
I suspect it was you.
We are so terribly hard on ourselves. We hold ourselves to standards to which we’d never hold others. And we are mean as snakes to ourselves when we mess up.
While your colleagues probably laughed at your ditzy-ness and asked when you could reschedule, you were probably berating yourself. I know your friend was probably sad to lose her cherished book, but I bet she received your heartfelt apology and replacement book with a hug rather than the wrath you felt for yourself. Sure, your husband was disappointed that your long-standing plans fell through, but he probably got over it and into the unexpected family game night more quickly than you did. And your son’s coach? I am confident the fact that his team was 15 minutes late upset him for about 15 minutes while you wallowed in your embarrassment and frustration with yourself for days.
In short, people are almost always kinder to us than we are to ourselves. My finger is not pointed solely at you. Lord knows, it’s true for me. In fact, this is true for so many of us that you could say it is part of the human condition. Father Richard Rohr, a globally recognized teacher and author, writes, “We all have to admit that our secret inner attitudes are often cruel, attacking, judgmental and harsh.” Henri Nouwen, known as one of the great spiritual masters of our time, in his book Discernment, identifies self-rejection as “the greatest enemy of a spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved.” He goes on to wonder “if the greatest temptation is self-rejection … the fear of never being enough or not being lovable.”
It is precisely this fear of never being enough or not measuring up that creates the inner judgment, harshness and cruelty that dictates our attitudes to ourselves.
What do we do about this? How do we change? As is so often the case, change like this starts with self-awareness. We have to start to really hear our inner dialogue rather than simply letting it wash over us. This can be challenging as we may have become so accustomed to the negative patter that we don’t even recognize it for the venom that it is.
My yoga practice helps me a great deal to notice when I’m being harsh with myself. In the quiet on my mat, the only things to listen to are the sound of my breath and the voice in my head. I’ve learned that even in the peace and quiet of my practice, I’m perfectly capable of accepting cold, judging, at times mean thoughts about myself without flinching. I allow myself to say thing to myself that I would never (never!) say to someone else. To make matters worse, I do it regularly and in a place I’ve designated to heal and nurture my spirit.
With practice (more of it than I care to admit), I’m learning to be aware of the tenor of my inner dialogue. I am learning to change the language of my thoughts. I am learning to forgive myself for not being perfect. Better yet, I am learning to accept myself as I am right now. After all, yoga doesn’t care if I mess up a few postures or simply can’t learn to stand on my head. A practice filled with physical “failures” can be a deeply rewarding, centering time that leaves me energized and ready to take on the rest of my day. In the face of those great gifts, it’s suddenly easy (or at least easier) to ask that cold, hard voice in my head, “Who are you to judge my inabilities as failures when, clearly, it was enough? When, clearly I was enough?”
You – imperfections and all – are enough. So am I. We should practice the kindness we show to others – and receive from others – with ourselves. By short-circuiting our destructive inner attitudes, we probably will not become perfect. We probably will still mess up. But we will become more loving, patient, accepting people, which is all the world really needs us to be, right?