I have a saying. In adulthood, we tend to hold ourselves the way we were held. We internalize what came at us and now we throw it at ourselves. If you were indulged, you’ll make excuses; if you were treated harshly, you’ll be unkind to yourself.
Sometimes, what’s key is not so much a replay of exactly how you were treated, but how you adapted to how you were treated. Say my mother was intrusive – I adapted by going behind a nice, strong wall. My parents were neglectful. I didn’t make demands, fending for myself, but all the while lonely – as I still feel now.
We men, in particular, are prone to holding ourselves to a standard of perfectionism and being unsparing of ourselves if we fail to measure up. Some of us have internalized Patriarchy’s false narrative of masculinity so thoroughly that we hail self-flagellation as a constructive goad to excellence.
Harshness is the enforcer, the muscle behind high standards of excellence. This is bullshit! Wake up, please. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is no redeeming value in harshness.
“There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”
It’s an exact analogue to assertion versus aggression. In the same way that you can stand up for yourself without aggression, you can stand up to yourself without aggression – just as you would if it were an external relationship.
You can drag yourself up at 5:30 am in the dark to go to the gym; you can bring yourself back to your desk after a short break and finish your work. But you needn’t be judgmental or unkind.
And let’s not even start on the criticisms, those shame messages – that sucked, you’re stupid, you’re fat, there you go again, loser.
I want you to stand up to those harsh voices. They are simply the voice of the Adaptive Child part of you, “a kid in grown-up clothing.” You need to start loving that little boy or girl… and put them in their place. You don’t want them driving the bus. I say, put your arms around them, love ‘em up. And take their sticky hands off the steering wheel.
Many of us have come to some version of this realization in our relationships with others. We do a good job of taking a break, counting to ten, and letting the wave of triggering pass over us. We don’t want those immature parts of ourselves to run our relationships.
But how about in our relationship to ourselves? I say all the time to my clients: You wouldn’t let anyone outside of you talk to you like that. But because it’s you talking, you think it’s okay, or else you can’t do anything about it.
I’ve said in the past, sustaining relationships with others requires a good relationship with ourselves. Healthy self-esteem is an internal sense of worth that pulls one neither into “better than” grandiosity nor “less than” shame.
I invite my clients to begin noticing moments when they are one-up or one-down, what’s the sensation of “one up” or down in their body? What are the thoughts, feelings….
What triggered the jump or the dive? As you truly realize that essential worth and dignity are not conditional; they belong to each of us in equal measure; they can neither be added to nor subtracted from, you begin to work the daily practice of intervening – imagining that Adaptive Child part of you and disarming him or her. Just as you’d say to an external offender, you say, “I will listen to whatever point you want to make, but only if you’re respectful.”
What Does Healthy Self-Esteem Look Like?
So – Part One is about stopping, or at the least beginning to quiet the harsh voices, those unkind messages.
Part Two is then actively summoning up the energy of kindness, tenderness, compassion and giving it to yourself – even in the face of imperfect or bad behavior. It’s okay. You’re human. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off. Learn from your mistakes, be humble, be wise and be accepting,
For those of us with significant trauma, such a minute-to-minute practice can be hard. Our shame is particularly thick and sticky – difficult to get rid of. Trauma work – one that centers on divesting of that “carried shame,” will help a lot.
Deep release work, coupled with daily practice, makes for a great one two punch.
Finally, I just want to add that depression is a particularly nasty shame disorder, a disorder of self-violence. I wrote that if you could take a stethoscope to the psyche of a depressed person, you’d hear one part of the psyche mercilessly beating up the rest.
If neither trauma work nor practice alleviates the self-harshness, read my book on depression and get evaluated for the condition. If it’s moderate to severe you should consider medication – still a necessary and effective part of treatment for those who really struggle.
I had to do all three kinds of therapy to begin having a harmonious relationship to myself.
For most of my life, I was subject to bouts of severe self-loathing. It wasn’t much fun being inside “my skin” much of the time. I didn’t really relax and be okay with myself from the inside out until my forties. But I did it. I am now quite comfortable internally most of the time – no matter what life throws at me. I can differentiate between life’s challenges and my personal faults.
I don’t take myself apart anymore. I am at peace. Those of you who’ve heard me may guess at what I’ll say next: If you come from a dysfunctional culture, so do I. If you hailed from a dysfunctional family, so did I. I spent decades oftentimes disrespecting myself. I don’t anymore. And if I can do it, you can do it.
So, good luck.
May this be the day you resolve to treat yourself better, and speak to yourself less harshly.
It IS achievable.
And it’s what YOU deserve.