Most of us have high standards for ourselves. Whether wanting to gain recognition, feel like we belong, or achieve our goals, we can easily fall short of our ideal and in the process judge ourselves as being not good enough. Practiced over a lifetime, this striving for perfection hardens into self-judgment, unworthiness and low self-image.
For the vast majority of people who come to meditation retreats this habit of self-criticism is a central issue. As someone who knows this problem first-hand I can attest to its debilitating power. When I was growing up I had a hard time just looking in the mirror. I wasn’t cool. I was shy. I wasn’t buff. I was “pudgy cute.” Though we didn’t have a word for it when I was young, the descriptive word came into the lexicon in time. I was a nerd. At least that’s what it felt like the inside.
Though I know self-judgment well, I also know that it’s possible to train the mind to not believe those thoughts and even learn to hold oneself in a positive light. This shift comes from understanding how the mind works. As we dis-identify with those negative thoughts it’s possible to see ourselves as our good friends might see us. And along with this wise understanding of the mind this gradual transformation is supported by a strong commitment to cultivate kindness and compassion towards ourselves and to the habits we’ve created over a lifetime
The Mindful Self-Compassionate (MSC) approach developed in recent years by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff has been a great addition to the self-awareness and mindfulness movement that is now so widespread. It’s a great discovery to see that you can actually practice and transform lifetime habits of self-judgment, turning the harsh inner critic into a wise caring advocate.
There’s one trap to be watchful of if “being kind to myself” is our new mantra. While honoring our limits, it’s important to not fall into an attitude of playing it safe in the name of self-compassion. If we’re reluctant to stretch ourselves and move out of our comfort zone how can grow? As the Mindful Self-Compassion approach shows, with wisdom, self-compassion can also include being willing to take risks and grow in our capacities.
As psychologist Carol Dweck describes in her “Growth Mindset” theory, we have to be willing to fail and not believe the voices in our head that would call failing a disaster. Most successes come after perseverance and repeated setbacks. Mastery comes from understanding that learning will happen if we keep trying regardless of the result. There is no failing if we if we have the courage to continually show up and learn from experience.
Thomas Edison was asked by an interviewer how it felt to fail 2,000 times before successfully inventing light bulb. His reply was, “My good man, I did not fail. I invented the light bulb. And it was a 2000 step process.”
In addition to practicing self-compassion, let’s include courage, determination and perseverance as qualities that support us to realize our full potential. Then the world will have our full contribution and we can fulfill our work in this lifetime. We can show up fully in our lives while holding ourselves with a loving, compassionate heart.