Andrea couldn’t make up her mind: She was supposed to go to this party that was organized by her new sports club, but she wasn’t feeling up for it. She had been planning to go, really wanted to, and not let her social anxiety get in the way. She was well aware that she had to push through the temptation to just avoid uncomfortable situations if she wanted to have a more active social life. This time she was going to just go and have fun.
It was the end of the year, and Andrea had been thinking about what 2011 had brought. She felt a strong sense of loss. A close friend of the family had died earlier that year. She had moved across the country and lost touch with most members of her former basketball team, whom she felt very close to. To add to her stress, she was worried about losing her job after her company threatened more layoffs.
Andrea felt torn and didn’t know what to do. Push through her anxiety and just go to the party, or honor her feelings and her need to take care of herself.
One of the hardest things for the Gentle Self is to let go of the harsh and critical thoughts in one’s own head. The self-imposed reprimands usually pile up high. Often we don’t even think as “Me,” but we take on the voices we internalized from others who have made us feel inadequate in the past: You are a nuisance… You should be working harder… You are too fat… You are a loser… Nobody is interested in what you have to say…
Sometimes we aren’t really aware of the thoughts that put us down that way, but they’re there, running somewhere in the background, and impacting everything we do. As soon as you hear yourself say “I suck,” “I’m not good at this,” chances are that your inner critic is at work.
Lots of people struggle with this kind of sel- blame. For some, the voices are devastating and pervasive. What we automatically do in this situation is to try to tune them out. To get rid of them. Out with the negative thoughts.
Unfortunately there’s no way to control them. The harder we push them away, the more likely they come back, and sometimes with a vengeance. Just like we can’t tell our bodies to stop hurting, we can’t command our mind to quit worrying.
One of the big challenges The Gentle Self faces is how to sustain friendships in the long run. We get hurt by inconsiderate people and careless remarks and feel quickly tempted to quietly abandon the offender, making up all kinds of excuses why we don´t want to see them anymore. But when do you give up on a friend and when do you try to work things out?
I see it over and over in my psychotherapy practice, how people attempt to cope in the midst of this struggle. Ive been meeting with a young man, let´s call him Michael. He grew up in a family that forced him to continuously attend to the needs of the parents and siblings, without getting a chance to learn much about his own identity. As an adult he continued to do the same with his friends. It was always about everybody else and what they wanted. Most of the time, he didn’t have the slightest idea what his own preferences were.
That has changed over time. Little by little, he is learning to stand up for himself. One of Michael´s childhood friends likes to remind him how he´s always been a clumsy driver, who gets nervous crossing a busy intersection and once had bumped into a parked car. One day, when he teased him that way again, Michael cleared his throat and responded calmly: “Actually, that was ten years ago when I first got my license. I drive very differently now.”
The first thing that absolutely must be said about introverts and gentle people of all kind is that we have a lot to offer. Many of us walk around with the nagging worry that being aggressive and flamboyantly extrovert is the way to go. That we have to change at all costs in order to be successful, noticed, appreciated and so on.
Gentle people can have very fulfilled lives. We find meaning and confidence in working hard at what is important to us. We crave connection with others and want to lend a helping hand. We are empaths, people who have the ability to put themselves into another person’s shoes, and thus create loving and harmonious relationships.
Most of us, in fact, have an artistic streak. I am thinking about the legions of young actors and artists who come to New York City, enduring rejection and discouragement seemingly without end, but they keep plugging away at their goals. They may not always end up becoming big movie stars. But they find the self-exploration that comes with the job rewarding and meaningful.
The sensitivity we possess may sometimes feel more like a curse than a blessing. But when employed skillfully, it enables us to create powerful relationships of mutual respect and inspiration.
We’ve all met them… people who are gentle, kind and generous souls who often don’t seem to fit in as well in a group of people, who keep to themselves with only a few close friends, and who sometimes don’t have that great of a self-image. People who worry in general, or have anxiety about anything or nothing at all. People who’ve tried a lot of different things to keep their worry or anxiety under control, but still often find it challenging in their daily life.
Some people call these folks “worriers,” or “introverts,” or say they suffer from “social anxiety disorder.” But in reality, they’re just normal, everyday people who need a little help in certain areas of their lives (just like all of us!).
The Gentle Self is a guide for introverts, conflict avoiders, people with low self esteem, and worriers of all kinds. “I found that many people are too fragile to ask for what they need and have trouble sustaining relationships, for fear of not getting what they need or being abandoned,” said Gerti Schoen, M.A., LP, the blog’s creator and author.
Gerti Schoen, M.A., LP is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice with offices in New York City and Hoboken, NJ. She was born and raised in Germany where she trained and worked as a journalist for German National Public Radio and the national newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. She came to New York City to work as a foreign correspondent in 1998. After 15 years as a reporter and editor, she decided to change professions and became a licensed psychotherapist. In 2007, she completed her psychoanalytic training at both the Washington Square Institute and the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology in New York. She has also been a Zen practitioner for ten years and integrates the teachings of mindfulness and meditation into her work with clients.
Please give Gerti a warm Psych Central welcome! I look forward to reading this blog devoted to people who have a gentle personality.