Choosing to become curious witness-observers exploring the intricacies of our own ways of being, feeling and doing allows us to become more gentle and generous toward our selves.
Be Gentle With Your Self
Remember to be really gentle with your self as much of the time as you can!
For most of the first thirty-odd years of my life, I was a harsh taskmaster to my self, mercilessly pushing me through any endeavor in which I engaged. If I were tired or sick, rather than backing off, I'd be more likely to up the pressure to which I subjected my chronically super-achieving self. I had to be the best at whatever I was doing in order to feel worthwhile. (My father tells me that even when I was very young I would abandon any undertaking in which I didn't immediately see that I might excel.)
When, at 23 – and in suicidal despair – I began working with my first therapist, I brought that same striving to the work with my emotional self. I was as relentless in the pursuit of healing as I was in everything. As a consequence, my life was highly charged and productive (in our culture's terms). It was also exhausting – though I would never have admitted to that then.
At 32, responding to the urging of a different sort of inner voice, I dropped out of my super-achieving existence (see Pirouettes for more about that time) and took to the road West in a van that I'd set up as my traveling home. For the first time in memory, I began questioning the ways that I had been treating my self. I started paying attention to the body that I had persistently flogged in order to get me to wherever it was I thought I'd needed to go. Every fiber of my body and my being called to me to slow down, to go more gently both in the world and with my self. Paying attention to this call from within, I began the long, sometimes arduous journey to becoming a kinder caretaker of me.
My new choices went against everything I had learned in trying to survive my critical, undermining mother. (See Speak Kindly to Your Self for more about these beginnings.) This made the road quite edgy. These choices also went against the grain of mainstream culture. This added to my general experience of being other, an outsider wherever I found my self. Neither challenge deterred me.
That I was moving into this new way of being in the world without putting on it any of my usual pressure to excel was pretty amazing. Without yet having a vocabulary for what I was doing, the path I took was to begin to observe my self. I became a curious, non-judgmental witness to my own life. Anything I did and any way I thought or felt or acted became something for me to examine and try to understand in its own terms. My focus shifted away from achieving any specific outcome. Instead, I was drawn to simply observing the processes by which I moved and was moved.
I stopped seeing the twists and turns of my thinking, feelings and doings as acceptable/good or unacceptable/bad; they just were what they were. If I wasn't busily evaluating them, they became opportunities to explore my own convolutions. Being just with me, wandering along the West Coast childless and now without partner or work to call my attention away from these meanderings, I had the emotional and physical space I needed to devote to this research. The approach moved me from harsh, demanding-of-self ways toward a growing gentleness in my treatment of me.
Though in my forties, as I began the work of uncovering and re-mothering the Little Ones inside me (see The Little Ones Story for more about this), my capacity to treat my self tenderly was much expanded and fine-tuned, it all started here with this shift in perspective.
I've watched many of the women with whom I've been privileged to work – women with lives even more complex and contextually embedded than I had had – begin on the path to treating themselves with greater gentleness. Almost always the gateway lies in the willingness to become cultural anthropologists, ethnographers exploring the terrain of their own beings. In choosing to observe, we let go of being outcome-focused. We become witnesses gathering understanding of the ways in which we function in our selves and in the world. Engaged in investigating how we are wired, we can allow our selves to be exactly as we are, without our usual judgments or expectations.
Openhearted curiosity about our selves expands the capacity for kindness and generosity toward our own beings; ways of treating our selves that our upbringings and our culture rarely teach us. In conventional life, goal-directed and outcome-oriented behaviors are valued and rewarded. This valuing leads us to measure our lives against other people's accomplishments and/or against accepted norms. In that measuring we are constantly judging our selves. The judging is rarely gentle. Contrary to popular belief, criticism does not encourage or sustain the flourishing of the best in us. Only when we treat our selves with compassion and generosity of spirit can we live into our fullness.
Consider remembering to approach all that you do and all the ways that you are with curiosity: interest in how you are wired; see how much more gentle you become with your self and watch how you thrive.