Sometimes I don’t feel very good about myself.
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit since I am a therapist, you know.
But it’s true.
Like many people – maybe you included – I’ve had a lifelong struggle with the inner critic that takes up space in my head and a lot of my emotional energy.
Of course, since it’s been a lifelong struggle, I’ve also been on a lifelong quest to find some answer to feel better about myself. Let me tell you just a little bit of my story.
I want you to think carefully as we go through the story and see if any of these steps describes where you are now.
For sake of example, I’m going to use the biggest thought I grapple with: I’m not good enough.
Here’s the story:
Once upon a time, I constantly thought I wasn’t good enough. This thought made me very sad and even led to periods of depression. The thought had to go so I could feel better.
The first thing I tried: Do what my mind says.
I tried to be good enough. Of course, that didn’t work because once I reached what should have been good enough, there was always something else that was better.
When I finally realized that trying to be good enough was an endless chase, I thought I would feel better. And I did. For awhile.
Next try: Talk myself out of it.
But then I became aware that I was still struggling with the thought that I wasn’t good enough. So I tried to think my way out of it. I came up with lots of realistic, rational thoughts to replace my negative thought.
This helped for a while, too. But soon I found myself in a knot inside my head, one set of thoughts battling with another – the rational versus the irrational.
It was very draining.
Next: Don’t resist.
Then, somewhat miraculously, I was introduced to the art of nonresistance. You’d think that I might have learned this from a spiritual leader or yoga teacher. But the lesson came from an unlikely source: an oncologist.
Several years ago, my late partner, Ruth, was having a conversation with her doctor about the difficult side effects of chemotherapy. We expected him to do something about the problem. Instead, he looked at Ruth and said something that changed both of our lives:
“Ruth, don’t resist. Allow the chemotherapy to do its healing work.”
This became our mantra and I learned to let go and truly accept the experience in front of me rather than struggle with it.
The strange thing was that although I learned how to accept the experiences and events that came into my life, it didn’t occur to me to apply the same type of acceptance to the constant battle in my head about being good enough.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I came across the idea of mindfulness. I had heard the word and understood it to some degree, but at some point – and I’m not even sure when this happened – it clicked:
I can accept my thoughts and feelings without resistance just like I do the events in my external world.
Life in my head became so much easier.
Now I knew to just notice the thought that I wasn’t good enough.
That’s all. Just notice.
I didn’t have to add anything on to the thought or judge it in anyway. I could just observe it, notice the sensations in my body because of it, and let it go like a bubble floating away on a soft breeze.
And, while I noticed the thought, I discovered that I didn’t have to believe it, either. I learned that minds are problem-solving machines and they evolved to keep us safe. So, when my mind kept coming up with this thought that I wasn’t good enough, it was just doing its job. It was trying to solve a problem or keep me safe in some way, probably by trying to “motivate” me to “be good” so that I wouldn’t be rejected by the tribe and endangered.
Whatever the reason, I practiced just being present with my own experiences, both internal and external, and not criticize them in any way.
It felt better. A lot better.
And I like to feel better.
Therein lies the problem.
It seemed like something wasn’t fitting quite right.
My new practice gave me a lot of space to accept myself and my experiences, but sometimes I still wrestled with my emotions.
I just noticed myself wrestling with my emotions, but I wrestled nonetheless. I figured I must be doing something wrong and that I must be missing some piece of this mindfulness puzzle, some magic ingredient that would help me feel better and better.
And I was. Just not in the way I had expected.
The Missing Piece
I was sitting in a seminar that was led by Dr. Kristin Neff, the leading researcher in the field of self-compassion. She was leading us through a mindfulness exercise, one of several that we had practiced that day.
I was feeling good about allowing myself to be present and to learn to increase the compassion I feel for myself. I felt hopeful that being more self-compassionate would give me another tool to help me in my constant quest to feel better.
About halfway through the exercise, I heard Kristin say, “And remember, you’re just allowing yourself to be present with your own experience. You’re not trying to get rid of anything. Trying to make yourself feel better by being self-compassionate is just another form of resistance. Just make space for the difficult feelings you’re having and allow them to be there.”
I felt completely busted. Like she was talking directly to me instead of the hundreds of people in the auditorium.
So, that’s what was missing. I was using mindfulness to go after the tempting lure of feeling better. I wasn’t accepting my complete experience, only some of it. I was resisting the presence of my negative feelings and trying to make them go away – I was attempting to control them.
Since then, I’ve been exploring more and more the true meaning of acceptance. I’m learning to make space for my feelings, both positive and negative.
And I’m allowing them to be present as I continue on with my life.
This means that I’ve adopted a “Yes, and . . .” approach rather than a “Yes, but . . .” approach. Instead of saying, “Yes, I want to live a rich, meaningful life but I need to get rid of these negative feelings first,” I say, “Yes, I want to live a rich, meaningful life and I am doing that even though I’m not feeling good emotionally.”
As Neff says in her book, Self-Compassion:
It becomes understood that happiness is not dependent on circumstances being exactly as we want them to be, or on ourselves being exactly as we’d like to be. Rather, happiness stems from loving ourselves and our lives exactly as they are, knowing that joy and pain, strength and weakness, glory and failure are all essential to the full human experience.
And, of course, this is not the end of my story, but only the beginning. The practice of complete acceptance is just that: a practice. One that must become part of my lifestyle and, I hope, part of yours, too.
So, now over to you: Where are you at in this process? Still trying to think you’re way into feeling better? Accepting some but not all of your experience?
Let’s talk about it in the comments below.