The older I get, the more time I spend in a place called self-love.
It’s not a destination I have fully settled into yet, but at least I spend more time there than I used to. It’s not just a hotel that I visit a couple of times a year – it’s an apartment I’ve furnished with some of my favourite books, artwork and comfortable furniture.
There are moments when I want to stay in that apartment, but I get pulled back to old familiar locations, like self-criticism, self-doubt, body shame, insecurity and fear of abandonment. When I make a mistake that hurts someone, when someone criticizes me, when my old trauma is triggered, or when I haven’t been tending my membranes and I’ve extended myself to the point of exhaustion – those are all times when it’s harder to stay in my cozy apartment with my favourite things. That’s when I use my tenderness practices to soothe my body/mind/heart and eventually I find my way back.
Before I made tenderness an important part of my life, I used to go on self-defeating loops in my mind. First I’d get triggered into self-criticism and fear of abandonment. Then, because I’d read a lot of self-help books about the importance of self-love, I’d try to find my way back there. Because I was already in self-criticism mode, though, I’d start to blame myself for not being better at self-love. Of course, that loop never served me well because personal growth can not happen in a place of self-criticism.
When I interviewed her for Know Yourself, Free Yourself, my friend, psychologist Dr. Jo Unger told me that “we react to self-criticism with defensiveness, just as we would when receiving criticism from others. We try to protect ourselves and we defend our choices and behaviours.” In other words, we become our own worst enemies, creating a war within our own heads.
How do we get out of these loops, then? How do we find our way to self-love when the self-critical parts of us keep blocking the path? Once I started on this Liberation and Tenderness journey I’ve been on, I started to find a few answers to those questions.
Firstly, I learned about systems theory and began to realize that my own tendency toward self-criticism and fear of abandonment wasn’t just a personal failing but was designed into the systems I was born into. That was an important piece for me, because it meant that I was neither fully responsible for developing (or dismantling) the self-critical parts of myself, nor was I solely responsible for my lack of self-love. (It also meant that my family and community were not solely responsible – the systems were much bigger and more complex than that.)
Capitalism, for example (a meta-system that infiltrates every other layer), doesn’t want me to find genuine self-love because then I might stop buying things to try to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. Capitalism wants me to keep seeing my body as shameless, because then it can convince me to buy all the body-shaping clothes, all the age-defying creams, all the self-help books, all the beauty products, and all the diet plans. If I love myself too much, and everyone else does the same, we might stop feeding the growth that capitalism relies on to live.
Contrary to what some of the self-help books teach, self-criticism is not just an inside job. It’s been shaped by many forces, from our earliest days of life. Unless we understand that, it doesn’t matter how many self-help books we read. We might get better at self-care, and perhaps even self-acceptance, but genuine self-love will remain illusive.
Secondly, I learned that, though I’ve been shaped by systems and the systems are still alive in me (and I help shape systems), I still have the freedom to make choices. I am not a slave to the systems. I can choose to heal the trauma that has left me with a fear of abandonment. I can find community support instead of trying to face this challenge as an individual. I can choose to deconstruct the beliefs that the system has convinced me I can’t live without. I can choose to challenge the voices in my head that tell me I need to climb the ladder of acceptability to be worthy of safety and belonging and I can work with my community to co-create spaces where the ladder has no value.
As Sonya Renee Taylor teaches in The Body is Not an Apology, we can choose to collectively dismantle the ladder. “Divest from this ladder. It’s only real because we keep trying to climb it. We have no more use for it. When I don’t have the ladder to climb and I understand my natural birthrights, the ladder is imaginary. We already came here with everything we need to be destined to be who we came here for.”
Thirdly, I discovered that Tenderness was my path back to self-love (no matter how many times I get triggered into self-criticism or self-doubt). When I started to experience Tenderness as an external entity (as I wrote about in The House That Tenderness Built), something that was always available to me whenever I chose to receive it, I found I no longer had to rely solely on my own internal resources (resources that often got blocked by self-criticism) to get to self-love. I could simply trust in it, the same way I trust nature to hold me when I go for walks in the woods.
When I write conversations with Tenderness in my journal, she teaches me how to treat myself and how to divest from the ladder. When I soothe my body with Tenderness practices, she reminds me how valuable, beautiful, and sensual my body is even if it doesn’t measure up to capitalist beauty standards. She reminds me again and again that I am worthy of love and she silences the voice of self-criticism.
“Everything is a candidate for inquiry,” says Gabor Maté, “even intensely negative experiences like self-loathing. Rather than admonishing ourselves for hating ourselves, we can be curious as to why self-hatred arrived on the scene in the first place. A question posed in that spirit often illuminates. When the beauty in us can compassionately accept the beast – allow it to ‘be our guest,’ if you will – the latter may transform into a handsome and loving companion; at the very least, it can relax and stop hounding us so ravenously.”
That brings me to some thoughts about what self-love really is. Last week, during a lunchtime conversation at Brave Earth, British-Chilean artist and activist Felipe Viveros shared that in mapudungun (the language of Mapuche people, an Indigenous tribe in Chile) there is no word for hate. “Ayün”, the word used for love, means that there is a special kind of light in your eyes and that I can see myself reflected in that light. The only way to understand hate, then, is to say that the light in your eyes has gone out and I am no longer able to see myself reflected.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about that in relation to self-love. When I look in the mirror, I want to be able to see myself reflected back to me through the light of my own eyes. I want to stand in that light and nurture it for so long that it is never at risk of going out. I want that light to shine as brightly as it can so that everyone I meet can see themselves reflected.
Another conversation this week had a similar impact. My friend Michael was talking about wonder and awe, and how it’s easy to be in wonder and awe when we look at nature. It’s harder to do, though, when we look at ourselves. But if I am a part of nature (which I am), should I not be able to witness myself with wonder and awe? Since then, I’ve been trying to look at myself that way, witnessing myself as a beautiful and adaptable part of nature, the same way I look at the trees in the jungle on my daily walks here in Costa Rica (where I’ve been for a month).
A couple of weeks ago, I took a series of photos of the texture of leaves in the jungle. It was remarkable to place them all together in a collage and see how much variation in shape, size, colour and texture there was. Each leaf has adapted differently to its environment, doing its best to absorb whatever light is available to it in the jungle, to turn that light into energy. In a sense, the way the leaves respond to the light is just the way I want to respond to the light I see in my own eyes when I look in the mirror – to photosynthesize it into energy and to pass that energy down to the tree that holds me.
Since then, just the way I did with the leaves, I’ve been marvelling at my own body and the bodies of the people I encounter. What beautiful variations we all are! What wonderful ways our bodies have adapted to our environments! How remarkable it is to witness the ways we’ve all reached for the light, transformed it into energy, and helped to reflect it to others!
Today, as I write this in the shade of a circle of tall palm trees, I send a wish out to all of you, my readers. May you see the light in your own eyes and may you reflect it to all you meet.
“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.
My response to them is always the same.
Go ahead and take it personally.
Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.
Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.
I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.
I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.
As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.
When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.
Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.
The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.
If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:
Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?
If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)
After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship.
If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.
I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”
If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.
Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people.
The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown
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Recently I was asked to reflect on the greatest learning that I took away from 2011. “Patience and trust are the biggest lessons that showed up,” I said. “They’re lessons I’ve had to relearn a few times in my life.”
It takes a lot of patience to build a creative business, especially if you prefer to follow intuitive pathways and ask a lot of deep questions instead of crafting foolproof business plans. And it takes a lot of trust to believe that the path you’re following is the right one when there are lots of bumps and curves and the destination continues to looks so blurry.
Last year’s word was “joy“, but sometimes, when I’m being honest with myself, I wonder if the word that best defines it might instead be “worry“. I tried to follow joy, but in the process I did a lot of worrying. Did I do the right thing quitting my job? Is this dream really going to pan out? Do people value my work? Are any of my efforts going to pan out? Am I ever going to make enough money?
Recently, a question has popped up in my mind repeatedly when I’ve started to take the worry path.
What if the outcome is not my responsibility?
What if I am only responsible for sharing my gift and not how people respond to that gift?
What if my only duty is to follow my muse and I don’t have to worry about whether or not people like what I produce?
What if the only thing I need to do is be faithful to my calling, show up and do the work, and then trust God to look after the rest?
What if all the striving I do to be a “success” is wasted effort and I should instead invest that effort into being as faithful as I can be to the wisdom and creativity that has been given me to share?
When I take that question seriously, it gives me a great deal of peace. When I let go of the outcome or the sales or the response of other people and focus instead on being faithful to the process and my own commitment to excellency, the knots stop forming in my stomach and I can breathe more deeply.
My mandala practice is helping me learn this lesson. I make mandalas for nobody but myself (even though I’m willing to share them). For me, they are about the process. I show up on the page, pick up the pencils or markers that I feel drawn to, and let whatever needs to emerge on the page. What shows up is almost always about something I need to learn or be reminded of or discover. It’s not about the art. The outcome is not my responsibility.
A few months ago, I was supposed to do a community-building workshop for a leadership learning institute in my city. Only three people registered for it, so they decided to cancel it. I was able to let it go at the time because I was already overbooked and needed the breathing space. They were still interested in the content, though, so they rescheduled it for January 23rd. This time, there are already 14 people registered, ten days before the event. I had to let go of the outcome and trust that, if I was faithful to what I felt called to share, and did my best to let people know, the right people would show up who need to hear what I have to say. The outcome is not my responsibility.
So far, my Creative Discovery class only has 3 registrants, even though I’ve promoted it more broadly than the last class that had much better registration. It doesn’t matter. I feel called to do this class and I know that it will be what those three people (and I) need even if nobody else shows up. The outcome is not my responsibility.
I’m putting the finishing touches on my book and writing a proposal to try to get it into the hands of agents. When I start reading books about how to write a proposal and how to land an agent, I can get my stomach tied in knots over whether I’m doing things the right way, whether I’ll ever be successful, etc., etc. But then I have to pause, take a deep breath, and make a mandala like the one above. It doesn’t matter if I’m a “success”. I feel called to share this book with the world and I will do so even if I have to self-publish it. The outcome is not my responsibility.
Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we should get lazy about the product, or that we shouldn’t work hard to let people know about what we’re doing. But once we’ve worked hard to follow the muse and been diligent in offering the gift to the world, we need to let it go and trust that the people who need to find it will.
I love the principles of Open Space, an Art of Hosting methodology for hosting meaningful conversations. * Whoever comes are the right people * Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. * When it starts is the right time * When it’s over it’s over
In other words, the outcome is NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY!
And now it’s your turn… what do you need to let go of?
He sat in my office, and though it was a few months too late to give me feedback and I certainly wasn’t asking for any now that all was said and done and the plan was well in motion, he said “I think you’re making a mistake. I think you should be doing X and Y instead of A and B.”
I sat there dumbfounded for a minute, and then, more calmly than I felt, I said “I’m sorry, I am no longer soliciting feedback on this issue. I asked for your feedback a few months ago, and since you didn’t offer it then, you have no right to offer it now. I don’t believe I’m making a mistake and I’m committed to the decisions I’ve made.”
A few hours later, after he’d left and my gut reaction had settled from seething to just slightly frustrated, it struck me how significant this conversation was. Not that it was unusual to get unsolicited feedback too late from my staff or co-workers – that happens all the time. What WAS unusual though was the fact that, even though it was a frustrating conversation, it had not ONCE caused me to doubt the wisdom of my decision.
I’ve been taking some fairly bold steps in my day-job lately, and though there are lots of supporters for the path I’m forging, there have been a lot of naysayers too. For whatever reason (uncertainty, fear, jealousy, genuine concern – you name it) boldness always brings out the critics. Constructive criticism during the development phase can be a very good thing (it helped make my idea a whole lot better, as a matter of fact), but the “after-the-fact” critiques just feel like rain on someone’s parade.
This realization that I’m getting better at handling it and not letting it send me into a spiral of self-doubt and insecurity was a refreshing and welcome shift. For too long, I’ve let fear of criticism, fear of failure, fear of resistance, and fear of embarrassing myself keep me from boldness. I’ve worked a little too hard at making sure all my decisions were met with acceptance rather than resistance. Let’s face it – I just wanna be liked.
But that’s starting to shift and I’m so grateful. The person who sat in my office and critiqued my plan doesn’t have to like me or my plan. I still think it’s the right plan. The person who made negative comments about the video I executive-produced (after it was completed and too late to make any changes) doesn’t have to like it. I still think it’s good.
What do you do with criticism or rejection – especially the stuff that comes too late? Are you able to rise above and keep believing in yourself? Are you able to continue to face the world with boldness and self confidence?
Today, when you begin to let the critics (either external or internal) eat away at your confidence, stand up and say out loud (even if you just do it alone in your bathroom) “I have not given you permission to dump all over my good idea. I believe that it is good and I am committed to seeing it through.”