Honoring how much more richly we grow and flourish as we practice being kinder, gentler, more acknowledging and celebrating of our selves.
Applaud Your Self
Applaud all the tiny baby steps along the way in your journey…Acknowledge the wonder of your persistence in the difficult times…Marvel at the miracle of your courage and trust-in-the-process…Delight in your self at every possible opportunity… Watch how much you flourish with enjoyment as the motivation!
It's fascinating to watch young babies as they discover themselves. Their whole bodies radiate joy, vibrating with delight in the moments when they discover their fingers or feet, shake a rattle, splash in water or set a mobile in motion.
Young children, too, if they haven't yet been damaged, are similarly delighted with themselves. They brim with excitement – thrilled with themselves over what they say, or do, or make, or their made-up songs or dances. Their glee in just being suggests that this unself-conscious enjoyment-of-self is our natural state, our true birthright.
Yet, early and often, our experiences teach us to cut off from feeling so simply full-with-our selves. We are frightened or shamed out of the unself-consciousness. We become uneasy about our selves. We start doubting, becoming critical about what we are doing, how we are doing it, how we look and how we are. Much of this damage is done to us in the guise of socializing us to fit into the world more safely.
For those of us who grew up in certain minority cultures (e.g., African-American or Jewish), praising, openly acknowledging or simply feeling and acting full-of-oneself was seen (often quite validly) as an endangering invitation to punishment or malevolence from the larger collective (or the evil eye).
Those of us over thirty grew up in an era when conventional wisdom held that praise was likely to go to a person's head, encouraging both conceit (swell-headedness) and a tendency for one to rest on one's laurels. We learned that feeling excited with oneself and/or openly showing that excitement was socially unacceptable, evidence of "getting too big for your britches!" We were often warned, "pride goes before a fall."
Many of us had wounded mothers and/or fathers whose own critical competitiveness took these cultural biases even further. Unwilling and, perhaps, unable to acknowledge or to celebrate anything about who or how we were or what we had accomplished in the world, they instead responded with criticism and dismissiveness.
It's no surprise, then, that many of us have persistent toxic inner voices that undermine and disparage much of what we do and how we are. These inner critics serve to keep us in our place. We feel constricted: cautious and self-deprecating in the moments that we might otherwise have felt expansive – joyously full-of-our selves and delightedly self-affirming.
My own emotionally crippled mother died when I was just 30. But, the legacy of her mean-spiritedness toward me continued to live on in just such an internalized, disdainful voice, a voice I've called the Hatchet Lady. (See Criticizing Your Self, Loving Acceptance and Doing Better for more about this and her.)
It wasn't until my mid-forties that I began to free my self from the Hatchet Lady's constant tyranny. My ongoing struggles with her, nevertheless, had had a significant impact on how I worked with clients from the earliest days of my grad school psychotherapy practicum. My own bitter experiences had taught me about what we who've suffered in these ways might need to help us to heal our selves. I spent my first twenty years as a practicing psychologist helping people find the permission to be more loving, accepting and acknowledging of themselves than I had yet been able to be with my self.
Though I encouraged clients, friends and even grumpy or mean service people to give themselves this permission, I never felt allowed to give it to my self. For many years it was a case of teaching best that which I most needed to learn.
I witnessed the ways my clients told themselves negating and demoralizing stories about who and how they were. It was all quite familiar to me from my own parallel inner process. I learned to invite my clients to look for ways to tell stories that would give them the benefit of the doubt. I supported them finding the stories they might tell about those same experiences or struggles if they were consoling a beloved friend who was upset and hurting over those very experiences or struggles. As they continued with this reframing practice, they gradually developed the capacity to bring that same compassion to themselves. Though many of them grew to look more kindly and unconditionally lovingly at themselves, I continued to berate, find fault with and be undermining of my self.
I helped my clients to acknowledge the tiny baby steps along the way of their healing process. They learned to celebrate these small bits of progress that they had before dismissed as insignificant. Yet, I continued to belittle what I saw as my own negligible progress.
I encouraged my clients to see, acknowledge and even marvel at their persistence, their willingness to hang in there with themselves. I fostered their ability to develop an appreciation of the miracle of their courage as they struggled. They learned to have this appreciation of themselves even in the middle of the most challenging passages in their lives. Nevertheless, the standards I held for my self left me still critical of my own ways of being.
Toward the end of this most disheartening period of the Hatchet Lady's reign, a friend told me about a creative arts therapist with whom she had started working. She described a session in which she had, scribbling intently, covered sheets and sheets of paper with angry red and black crayon and pastel. Then, while shouting ragefully, she'd torn sheet after colored sheet into jagged confetti. Afterward, she and the therapist processed the experience and came to the end of their session. Then, my friend got to leave the therapist's studio without cleaning up any of the mess she'd made.
Some inner part of me started shouting Yes! Yes! I didn't understand why this felt so right to me, but I knew that I needed to call that therapist and try working with her. I called the very next day and saw her before that week ended. It was such a right and life-changing choice. This wise woman was able to be for me what I had been for my clients. She found ways to encourage me to give my self permission to be me, just as I might be at any moment. In her studio, she offered the safety and unconditional acceptance I had never before been given. (Or, perhaps, never been given in ways that I could trust and be ready to let in.)
In some fantasy work – while dreaming to music – I discovered the tiny, exuberant and vibrant little being that I had been before the early damaging experiences had begun. I felt her breaking free into my consciousness and I adored her. I couldn't imagine being anything but fiercely protective of this precious creature who seemed to know just what she needed, just what was right for her. I could hear her speaking in my heart. I wanted nothing more than to listen to and to take really good care of her. (For the story of this process, see The Little Ones Story)
Taking this Little One home with me, I began, at last, the process I had been teaching my clients about for years. I started becoming a fiercely protective, compassionate, unconditionally loving Mommy to all the parts of my self. I could no longer allow the Hatchet Lady to be mean to these vulnerable parts of me. I even began to work with that inner critic, to talk with her, to find out what she needed from me so that she might stop being awful toward me.
As I practiced mothering my self in this new way, I continued meeting with that therapist over a period of almost three years. The Little One and I called our intermittent meetings with her our play therapy. It was wonderful to have someone who had magical toys and who was delighted to have us come and play in her space. It was also mind-boggling to have permission (for what seemed the first time in our life) to make messes that we didn't have to clean up our selves.
It's been a long, slow, layer-by-layer process to come to this place where, these days, I can almost always delight in my self all the ways that I am (even when I'm in the most crabby, whiny, pissy places). In the more than 29 years since I first met the Little One inside of me, I've been living the practice that, before then, I could only teach to others.
It never ceases to amaze me how much more richly we all grow and flourish when we work on being kinder, gentler and more loving with our selves; when we practice being more accepting and – in the safe spaces we create for our selves – more permitting of all the ways that we are. We all deserve this sort of treatment from our selves, as much of the time as we possibly can give it. And, we deserve it most especially when we think that we probably don't deserve it at all.
Consider treating your self with exquisite tenderness and acceptance.