Welcome back! It has been a bit since I have posted but the new school year is giving me a chance to reset and reflect on what concepts have been coming up time after time in session.
Here’s something I’ve noticed lately: We can be real assholes to ourselves. What’s new, right? This is a tale as old as time. We have an inner bully that picks on us and makes us feel insecure about our decisions. It’s usually not intentional and it’s often the little voice in our head questioning our every move or being really critical of ourselves for the past. Soon enough, that voice becomes stronger and stronger until it becomes so predominant that we forget to question that voice.
How to spot that voice:
What these statements indicate to me is that my client is judging their past self based on their current knowledge. We are constantly growing so what seemed right for us at that time in the past seems so wrong to us now. It is okay to look back and say, “Wow, that really wasn’t the right choice. I’ve learned and have come so far now.” The people who concern me the most are the ones who insist they have no regrets because that indicates no change and no growth.
What to do about that voice:
1) Get curious. Try to understand what was going on in your life at that time that made you feel those decisions were the best for you then. Were you young? Did you come from a family that would shove big topics under the rug or avoid emotions/conflict? What were you feeling back then? Did you have a good support system and role models to show you how to make the right choices or did you feel all alone? Were the people around you critiquing you or questioning you? In other words, were you a victim of gaslighting where you were made to believe your perception isn’t real or that you are doing the wrong thing even when you weren’t? Getting curious means to give light to the fact that there is a reason for all behavior. We did not just do what we did in the past out of the blue, it was likely for a reason and often for emotional protection.
2) Get compassionate. Once you begin to understand the background and purpose to past behaviors, you should simply stop being an asshole to yourself (if only it were that easy, right?!). Self-compassion is the antidote. Allowing yourself some grace, some slack. Nobody is perfect, especially our past selves. Much of the time we don’t feel like we are acting in the wrong in the present moment and only hindsight gives us the vantage point to look back and really question who we used to be. However, we need to recognize our growth; that we have changed based on those decisions and are much more capable now of being a better person.
3) Be present. Now that you have an understanding of what was going on and how to be compassionate, you can focus on letting yourself be in the present moment without judgment. Whether you are currently making the right or wrong decision, you will have to capability to handle any outcome. Trust your intuition. Your gut often knows how to steer you to doing what is best for you.
As a therapist, I try my best to put these concepts into practice. How successful am I? Only I (and usually my husband!) know the truth! I’d like to give you an example from my life because we all have them, even therapists.
It may not surprise most people but when I was a teenager I was pretty rebellious. I drove after drinking underage, I snuck out and went to parties in open pastures, I lied to my parents (a lot!), and I felt pretty judged by some folks in my tiny home town. My parents did the best they could to support me but there was only so much in their power. I tested their love every chance I got (Surprise ending: They STILL love me! Phew!). Even now, years later when I go back to my home town I feel my stomach drop as we drive down the brick-paved main street: “What do people to think of me now? Have I done enough for them to think I’m successful and erase the old me? I can’t believe I used to be that way.” The shame fills my gut and I’m back to feeling like a little girl again. And it’s the truth, as a mother now it kills me to see how my actions impacted my parents (especially their sleep and gray hairs!).
But now here I am, a capable and (mostly!) secure adult. I can look back on my actions and understand my part. I was a teenager whose brain probably wasn’t fully developed (Look it up! It’s science! The frontal lobe, which helps us understand negative consequences to our actions, doesn’t fully develop until our mid-20’s.). I was emotionally inept and handled most hard situations with anger. I would do anything to get acceptance and belonging from friends, which I was craving. I was drinking so I could numb out the reality that I was worrying my family and felt like I wasn’t good enough in some aspects of my life. I was searching for acceptance in all the wrong places and I didn't have the tools to get what I needed in a healthy way. There was a purpose to all of that behavior. I can also understand the part of others better now too—not every person is able to be compassionate towards someone who is acting out but those are the people who often need it the most.
These steps to greater self-compassion are applicable to everyone. To the parent I saw months back who felt guilty about spanking their child when that was how they were raised but has since learned better ways to handle their children with empathy. To the person who still questions themselves for pursuing a divorce after they were cheated on but has greater understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like now. To the addict who would relapse month after month but suddenly gained insight into what they are actually numbing when we began addressing their trauma history. You are all worthy of self-compassion. Stop being an asshole to yourself. ;)