“The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within.” ~Gandhi
If someone asked you to recall the last time you were kind to yourself, would you struggle to bring up that memory?
At one point in time, I couldn't remember ever being kind to myself.
I grew up with a lot of expectations from a demanding mother and other caretakers. Their expectations were all about them being in control and always being right.
It was more than confusing; it left me with a need to prove myself constantly, and it gave me an inner critic that berated me at an early age.
Years later, I got a job in corporate America where expectations were clear-cut and measured. Positive encouragement and regular successes made me feel good about myself.
I became addicted to that feeling. My ego encouraged me to continually exceed other peoples’ expectations by making my own even higher. My inner critic accepted nothing less.
Then I started my own business. I expected success to come quickly, easily, and be beyond anything I had experienced before.
It certainly bypassed my expectations—in the worst way possible.
This is a story of failure and how life got better when three small changes worked together to free me from being a victim of my own expectations.
Take a look, and imagine what these changes can do for you.
Change One: How You Treat Yourself
Not only had my third attempt at creating a successful business failed but also the man I loved turned out to be a lying, thieving con artist who left me emotionally and financially broke.
Life became nothing more than dealing with shame, runaway anxiety, and panic attacks that flung me out of bed at night.
Then I tripped over a bag of books one day that I’d packed for a fundraiser. One fell out.
Have you ever heard of the Buddhist practice called loving-kindness? I hadn’t, but Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance that fell at my feet explained it to me. Desperate for any relief I gave it a go.
The practice begins with expressing loving-kindness first for yourself and then for others. Think you might have trouble with that? Then begin by expressing kindness to someone or something you love such as a pet. Take that feeling and transfer it to yourself.
That’s how I had to do it. It was both heart- and eye-opening to realize how mean I had been to myself, and for how long I’d been that way.
Though the full loving-kindness practice can take hours to complete, using this shortened version is a quick, effective way to feel better about yourself.
This is what I’ve taken as my mantra, but feel free to use your own words: May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be held in loving-kindness. May I realize loving-kindness as my essence.
The practice is simple and easy to do: Eyes opened, lowered, or closed, speak the words quietly or silently, and immerse yourself in the feeling of loving-kindness for as long as you can or for as long as time permits. Thirty seconds is fine, but the longer you can sustain the feeling, the quicker you’ll reap the benefits of this practice.
Not only can you begin and end your day with loving-kindness but you can also easily practice it as you’re waiting for tea or coffee to brew, an elevator or bus to show up, or a person to come back after putting you on hold.
Aim for a total of six or more practices each day. Not only will that help you make a habit out of treating yourself kindly but it’s also a great stress buster.
Yes, you have to practice, but imagine how good you'll feel when you fill yourself with all that loving-kindness.
Change Two: What You Say That Limits You
Though I was trying to be nicer to myself, my inner critic was entrenched in the judgmental family attitude.
When I challenged it to stop judging me so harshly, it was quick to call me out on my own behavior of judging people.
It was true. I judged, and I labeled.
Attach a label to someone and that’s how you see them and think of them—even when evidence exists to the contrary.
And what I was doing to other people was the same thing I was doing to myself.
So I challenged myself. For every negative label I wanted to attach to someone, I had to come up with at least six different reasons that would stop me from doing so.
For example, the person who cuts you off in traffic. Instead of labeling them as a stupid jerk, you think: Maybe they got fired or hired today. Or maybe it’s something tragic or serious that’s distracting them. Perhaps they just came from the dentist, and now they’re getting transmissions from outer space!
It’s a practice that I made a game out of, and like any game, it has rules:
- You must focus on the person’s behavior and come up with six reasons that could have caused it.
- At least some of the answers have to be within the realm of possibility.
- Reject all expectations of finding the perfect answer or even coming up with six of them.
This practice is doable anywhere and with almost anyone, including kids.
It helps create an awareness of how labels limit your thinking and creates an awareness of the truth that what we do to other people reflects what we do to ourselves.
Don’t forget to play it with your inner critic. Listen closely and you might hear grinding noises as it tries to switch gears from beating you up to being supportive.
After all, if you can be less judgmental toward other people, how can it not do the same for you?
Change Three: What You Say That Belittles You
This one is about your self-talk habits. You know the ones when you ask yourself questions like, “How could I be so stupid? ” or, “OMG what a screw-up! Could I not make a bigger mess of things? ” or, “Why do I do this to myself? I’m such an idiot!”
Yes, labeling is definitely going on here, but this is different. This is all about your expectations of yourself and how you talk to yourself when you fail to meet them.
Even with the loving-kindness and labeling practices, my expectations of myself continued to run high. My inner critic loved beating up on me for every mistake, failure, or setback, real or imagined. Then one day, a little voice made itself heard, “Not being very kind to yourself, are you?”
So leaning heavily on my loving-kindness practice, I struggled to be more tolerant of my mistakes. Asking myself questions that would produce a more positive response was a big help.
For example: “Nothing is a total failure. There has to be something positive about this. What is it?” Or, “Is this really a mistake? Did I really screw up? Is it possible the outcome is acceptable?”
Think about those harsh ways you talk to yourself and the questions you ask that belittle you. They may be old reruns of taunts and questions other people used on you to make you feel ashamed or to justify punishing you.
Replace them with questions that explore the circumstances of your mistake or setback. Remember to look for anything that could be construed as positive. Doing so will help you reform your demanding expectations.
Sometimes, positives can be hard to find. That’s when you really want to be nice to yourself. Do extra loving-kindness practices, and then ask yourself what you’ve learned from what happened.
Experience can be a harsh teacher. Owning up to what you’ve learned may not be an easy pill to swallow. There may not be a spoonful of sugar to help it go down, but it’s certainly more desirable than beating yourself up, isn’t it?
Small Changes Have Large Impacts
These changes are small but powerful because they open you up to possibilities that you may not have considered previously.
They help you stop being victimized by your own expectations by treating yourself more kindly, by helping you realize that judging other people is closely aligned with the labels and limitations you put on yourself, and by helping you see the positives in supposed failures and cut yourself some slack.
Changing habits of thought and behaviors is challenging, but if I can do this, you certainly can!
It all begins with a practice taking less than a minute, six times a day. It’s a small practice of showering yourself with loving-kindness.
It’s easy to start. It’s easy to do. Just repeat after me:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be held in loving-kindness. May I realize loving-kindness as my essence.”
Disappointed man image via Shutterstock