self-compassion and life in flux


I read a quote recently that really moved me.

"Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years. Try approving of yourself and see what happens." Louise L. Hay

So much of what we do--how we act, how we think--is rooted in self-criticism. Where does that criticism come from? How did we learn to self-critique? From my understanding, our world helps cultivate this notion; perhaps unconsciously, but often purposely.

We learn to make judgements from a young age in order to define things in our world. A lot of it is natural, part of effective communication and intelligence. We are taught to label ourselves and the things around us by our senses and our world's teachings. 

This is blue. That is red. This is good. That is bad. He is lazy. She is pretty. This is that. Life is hard. 

As adults, we begin to want some power over these definitions. So we start forging our "own way," picking and choosing the labels that feel right to us. In the process, we develop more ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad, and consider them absolute. And then we hold ourselves and others to these codes, evaluating how we measure up, and evaluating how others measure up to our values.

Of course, we can't ever measure up, because these principles are based on perfection, inherently static. Consequently, we become frustrated by our shortcomings or angered by others' shortcomings, and generally anxious about how we can't adhere to our values. How we can't be perfect. Because ultimately, lines drawn in the sand get washed away by waves.

Although we know existence is flux, that life is just a flow of experiences, we get bogged down by the notion of defining it, labeling it. We seek to attain something as if life can be contained, pinpointed on a map. We made it. It's done. Now we can switch to cruise control. But life by nature doesn't work this way. Our every moment is in constant motion, meaning our beliefs, opinions, ideas, bodies, roles, emotions, paths, will also be in constant motion. Meaning nothing will ever be perfect, because nothing is static. 

Self-criticism was a driving force in my life over the last two years, where I spent every day trying to achieve optimal health--the perfect diet, the perfect mindset, the perfect workout routine--trying to fit myself into a little box that didn't account for the humanness of life.  I was determined to be "right" instead of just myself. A moderate amount of criticism is a normal part of self-awareness, but left unchecked, criticism can become a disaster. At first, I wrote off my eagerness as passion. But of course, as time went on and perfection remained elusive, I recognized that I had become obsessed with it.

My obsession wasn't healthy for me, or for others--because self-criticism eventually manifests out from the self and projects onto everyone else. I would feel guilty if I did, ate or thought something that wasn't part of my definition of optimal health; and I would do the same with my friends and family, policing everything they ate, did or said with the naive hope they would adopt my values and definitions. Eventually, trying to be "right" caused me to feel cynical, judgmental, and overall not at peace in my soul.

A few months ago, when I read that quote, everything kind of came back into focus for me. I made a conscious effort to start living from a place of compassion again, instead of criticism, first and foremost starting with myself. Because if we can't have compassion for ourselves, how can we possibly cultivate it for others? As my mother has often told me, "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?"

Self-compassion requires intention and purpose. It's not about being lenient with yourself, or pitying yourself. It doesn't mean that you stop working towards your goals or throw up your hands and give up. Rather, self-compassion is about being mindful, kind and connected to yourself. It requires speaking with love, thinking with love, and acting with love. It means not criticizing and judging who you are, and who others are. How often do we do that?

It's worth remembering that the world isn't black and white but infinite shades of gray--and that finding your own balance in the midst of those shades is what matters. What we believe is absolute is not. As our needs and wants shift throughout our lives, so too, will our beliefs and opinions. And vice versa.

I've started chanting the mantra, "I know myself, I trust myself, I love myself," anytime I feel self-criticism rising up, or when I feel insecure, uncomfortable, messy or imperfect. While I'm still passionate about health, I am listening to my body and my heart, instead of only my mind. And I am reminding myself of the spiritual philosophy I follow: that existence is impermanence; be open to the changes in yourself. Don't become too attached to any one label, ideal, belief or opinion.

Practice being present, and when you fail to be present, come back to the present.

All is well.