I have a long history of being unkind to the person I know best.
I’ve belittled myself. I’ve called myself stupid. I’ve shamed myself for being ugly. I’ve screamed at myself in my head for making self-destructive decisions. I’ve constantly criticized my blindness when I haven’t noticed problems in time to fix them. Every time I have been less than perfect, I’ve been there to shame myself about it.
Even though this behavior has been with me for as long as I can remember, I didn’t realize what I was doing until recently. And this realization has started giving me compassion for myself in a way I’ve never known.
It’s taken me many years to piece together the mosaic of who I am and how I became what I am. One moment in a psychologist’s office about 15 years ago was a key moment in that process, though.
I had been seeing this psychologist off and on for several years as I tried to figure out my past and how it was affecting my present. When I started working with her, I barely knew what questions to ask. I just knew that things had gotten all messed up along the way — and I knew I wanted help untangling whatever had gone wrong.
The therapist asked me to picture myself as a child. She took me back to a particular place. We talked about the room and what was around me. I vividly imagined everything about the setting. And then she asked me what I would say to that young man if I could.
It was painful to see myself in this way. It hurt my heart. I felt deeply wounded by what I saw. It’s hard to know what to call the flood of emotions I felt. Empathy. Compassion. Hurt. Fear. Love.
I wanted to tell this child that he was OK. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t deserve what he was going through. I wanted to tell him that someone would love him no matter what — even if he wasn’t perfect.
The therapist wanted me to see that I was still the same child and that I still needed to hear the same message. I understood that. I felt that — in theory — for the child David. It’s taken me a lot longer to apply the same things to the adult part of me.
When I was young, I learned that there was only one standard. I was either perfect or I was unacceptable. I was either completely good or completely bad. If was either perfect — which was the standard of “normal” — or I was deserving of shame and punishment.
I internalized those message so well that they were not conscious. I learned to judge myself harshly. I learned to judge others in my family harshly as well. By judging my sisters and my mother harshly for their perceived failings — for being normal human beings — I hoped to gain my father’s approval.
My father was harshly critical of everyone who wasn’t like him. I learned that pattern. I learned to shame and criticize everyone who made mistakes or who was not as smart as I was, for instance. Like the minion of a criminal mastermind in an absurd superhero movie, I tried to curry favor with my father — gain his love and approval — by being just as harsh and critical as he was.
I held myself to the highest standard of perfection. Even when I tried to defend myself outwardly when I wasn’t perfect, I heaped blame and shame onto myself. I felt like a miserable wretch. Nothing I did could be good enough. I couldn’t be good enough to deserve to be loved — and I couldn’t criticize others enough to overcome my own shortcomings. It was a miserable existence, even if I didn’t know what I was doing.
When I got away from home and started living on my own, I slowly started backing away from my criticism of others. I learned to be less dogmatic. I learned not to always say what I thought. I learned to be nicer and more charming.
Slowly, I started letting other people off the hook. I still saw them as irredeemably flawed for the most part, but my criticism became more of a private judgment. I was still disdainful. I was still arrogant.
Most of all, though, the voice of criticism and shame never left its primary target. No matter how much I adjusted my expectations and my judgment of others, I still felt the shame of never being good enough — because I could never be perfect.
If someone wanted to love me, I often sabotaged the relationship. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back on those relationships, I can see that I chased away those who thought I was worthy of being loved.
If I got too close to success, I sabotaged that. Since I wasn’t perfect, I didn’t deserve to be successful. And since I was such a shameful wretch, people would eventually figure out how terrible I was. If I were already successful, they would drag me down once they saw the real me. So I ran away from opportunities. I self-destructed.
And every time I lost love and lost the rewards I wanted, it reinforced my core belief that I wasn’t good enough. My failures were the proof of just how flawed I was — and how unworthy I was.
I continue to wrestle with this today. Part of me still believes I’m supposed to be perfect — and part of me believes I can never be worthy of the love and success which I crave.
I want you to love me. I want to be worthy of the success I envision. I want to see myself with the empathy and love with which I can see the child part of me.
The critical voice is my head is still there. The voice isn’t as vicious as it once was. But it still wants me to be perfect. It still wants me to surround myself with a perfect world — filled with perfect people who don’t exist.
I know I’ll never be perfect. I know that whoever loves me will never be perfect. I know that whatever children I have will be terribly imperfect. And that’s OK.
I’m getting better about talking back to the voice when it tells me what I “should” have done. I still hear that voice inside me say, “You should have seen that!” when I miss seeing something which later seems obvious, but I now consciously say, “No, I saw what was natural for me to see. That’s all I can do.” In many areas, I’m slowly getting better at responding to the voice — at defending myself with compassion and love.
And I’m slowly finding that the critical voice backs down when I show it compassion for myself.
I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t have to be perfect. I’m trying to remember that there’s no reason for me to feel shame. I’m trying to make certain I understand that I have worth — and that someone will love me for what I am.
In making these changes — insisting on compassion and love for myself — I find it easier to feel less critical of others. By backing off from black-and-white thinking about myself, I find that I see more gray in others.
I was a good kid who didn’t deserve the shame and criticism which I constantly got. I’m also a pretty good adult who doesn’t deserve the shame and criticism which I still fear. I’m slowly learning to love myself and forgive myself and to feel compassion for myself.
As I get better to feeling love and compassion for myself, I will continue to feel more love and compassion for you. We’re both flawed. Neither of us will ever be perfect. But as long as we can learn to love fully, that’s OK.