“You’re doing it wrong.”
This is my unintentional mantra. It plays all day long; sometimes, just a whisper in the background, and other times—mostly in the evening—it is on overdrive, surveying the landscape for any evidence of shortcomings that need to be whipped into shape. Because, you know, beating myself up for imperfections will eventually make things better, right?
These voices and the hurtful messages they carry are the very definition of powerlessness for me. I don’t want to be so mean to myself. I don’t honestly believe that I’m doing everything wrong. But they do, and they are relentless. Even in the face of decades of therapy, yoga, meditation, recovery from addictions, you’d think that some of this “wellness” would translate to more freedom from my self-loathing. But, the well-worn groove of picking out the “bad” never seems to notice what is actually really “good.” And, the fact that there is any bad at all still seems so intolerable. (Perfectionism, anyone?)
Luckily, I am as relentless in my search for freedom as my mantra is in search for destruction.
As a seeker of consciousness, spirituality, and serenity—and as a psychotherapist who tries to help others on this same path—I have often encouraged my clients to embrace all of whom they are—their experiences and their feelings—and I know that this is the path to more freedom. I’ve witnessed it over and over again. It’s truly one of the greatest gifts of my life, getting to watch someone step into him or herself and no longer feel like he is an ill-fitting garment.
With all that said, I still don’t want to do this myself. At times, I absolutely cannot accept myself, my experiences, or my responses to life. I know all of the tools that one might use in moments of terror and isolation, but I don’t pick them up. I feel ashamed that I’m experiencing the human condition at all and don’t want anyone to see it—how on earth could I pick up the phone and let someone in? Writing about these things will only make them “so,” and I don’t want any evidence of my crazy spilling onto the page. I can’t meditate when I’m feeling so squirrely; it’s like asking me to slowly immerse myself in a tub of boiling lava. Not gonna happen.
But all hope is not lost. I’ve realized what I can do—tell someone about it after the fact. This seems to be my one employable and reliable tool. My life can feel like a dirty secret when I’m in it, but once the shame has subsided and I have some distance from the moment, it seems a little more available for public consumption. And by public, I mean maybe one or two friends that I can trust. And when that goes well (because it always does, always), I tend to feel better about the formerly intolerable messiness in my head, and I can share it with more people.
The sharing seems to let people identify with me, and me with them, and then I feel less alone.
I feel a sense of connection and permission to be human and that feels amazing. And then I can actually see (in my own life) how it truly is the “icky stuff” that leads to greater self-acceptance, more compassion, love of life, and the ability to be present in my own skin. It’s not the avoidance of these things that brings contentment; it’s in going deeper into them. Even if I can only “go deeper” after the fact, it still works!
So, I never thought I would say this, but “Thank you, evil voices in my head!”
You point toward specific places that could use a little TLC. You represent the reality that life is never perfect, I will never be perfect, and the more I can accept you—the more I can accept these facts in the big picture. You are the ideal vehicle for transformation, and not the sort of transformation that gets rid of you once and for all, but the kind of change that allows me to stop fighting against you. I am not ok in spite of you; I am ok with and through you. And when I realize all of this, I notice a shift in the voices. “You’re doing it wrong.” feels less like a fact that I need to fix or hide and more like it’s coming from a wounded bully who needs a hug.
I’m curious what your own experiences are in this regard. Out of all the tools you have for self-care, which ones are you able to use and how do they work for you? If you saw the voices in your head as flag posts guiding you toward places that could use some love and compassion, how would you respond? What else can you share about moving through shame toward greater self-acceptance? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.
Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice. For more on Ingrid and her daily inspirations on achieving emotional sobriety, visit her website and follow her on Facebook.