This time of year, many of us are thinking ahead to 2019, making plans and possibly making resolutions. No matter what you do as you look to 2019, I hope you include creating a self-encouragement practice. As I wrote in Part I of this series, self-encouragement is building yourself up instead of tearing yourself down. It is like being a loving parent to yourself, a parent who sees her child’s potential and wants to nurture it. Self-encouragement is believing in yourself and in your ability to overcome your limitations and handicaps. It is focusing on your strengths, positive attributes, and skills, instead of your weaknesses and limitations. And self-encouragement is focusing on what you have accomplished instead of what you haven’t.
How to Create a Self-Encouragement Practice
As you create your self-encouragement practice, consider including the following:
- Revise your goals to better reflect what you are capable of today.
- Acknowledge where you could have ended up.
- Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished.
- Make an honest assessment of your positive and negative qualities.
- Be clear about what you want to accomplish.
- Replace self-criticism with self-correction.
Let’s take these steps one by one:
Revise Your Goals to Better Reflect What You Are Capable Of Today
Those who were abused or neglected as children tend to set unreasonable expectations for themselves. But there is one area of your life where this may be especially true: your hopes and dreams for yourself. Time after time, clients complain to me that they are extremely disappointed in themselves because they have not achieved what they set out to in life.
This was the situation with my client Rhonda: “I’ve had three failed marriages so I’m obviously not good at relationships, and now I’m too old to have children. I feel like such a failure. I have so much to give—I always wanted to give to a child what I didn’t get—but now I see myself being an old woman all alone with no family around her.”
While I felt sad for Rhonda, I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone—that there are many people from abusive or neglectful childhoods who are in the same situation. Childhood abuse and the shame that comes with it affects our ability to connect with others in an intimate way. This is true for many reasons, including the difficulties we have with trusting others, or the opposite, being too trusting; our inability to choose healthy partners who are capable of loving us; our tendency to choose partners who are replicas of our abusers; our difficulty in taking in good things—including love.
When I pointed these things out to Rhonda, she was surprised. She honestly hadn’t thought about how the abuse she had suffered could have had such a profound effect on her ability to create the family she so desperately wanted. She was like many people with an abuse history who don’t easily recognize how much the abuse they suffered affected their ability to achieve certain goals.
My client Carmen is another example of someone who was critical of herself for not accomplishing more: “I always planned on going to college and becoming a teacher. I wanted to help other kids the way one of my teachers helped me. Her name was Mrs. Kinney and she took a special interest in me. She was the first person to notice that I had any talent whatsoever. She gave me hope that I could grow up and create a different kind of life for myself than the way my parents lived. But I feel like I let myself down and let her down as well. I dropped out of Junior College after only one year because I didn’t study.”
Carmen had underestimated how much of a toll the physical and emotional abuse she had endured had affected her. “I would try to study but I couldn’t concentrate. My mind would wander. And when I had a test coming up I’d become so anxious I couldn’t think.”
As is common for victims of childhood abuse, Carmen suffered from the effects of PTSD, one of which is difficulty concentrating. And she also suffered from performance anxiety because her mother was constantly correcting her when she was a child. In her mother’s eyes she was always doing something wrong, whether it was the way she cleaned the house or the way she dressed. These two factors, plus the fact that she was constantly triggered by memories of her father’s rages and physical abuse, explained why she had such difficulties studying.
Exercise: Your Expectations of Yourself
If you are disappointed, depressed or feel ashamed because you haven’t achieved your goals it is important that you take the time to consider just how much your abuse experiences may have affected your abilities to do such things as perform tasks, learn new information and skills, or in the case of personal relationships, your ability to trust, take in good things or choose a healthy partner.
- Make a list of the expectations or goals you set for yourself in the past.
- List all the ways you imagine that the abuse you suffered made it difficult for you to reach your goals.
- Use this information to gain more compassion for yourself and to forgive yourself for not achieving past goals.
- Now revise your list of goals and expectations to include only those that are reasonable for you to meet given who you are today and your present circumstances.
Stop putting yourself down for what you haven’t been able to accomplish. Instead, gain an understanding of why it is that you weren’t able to reach your goals, and revise your goals to reflect a more accurate picture of who you are and what you are capable of today. By honestly looking at what you are capable of, you are actually encouraging yourself to continue trying. The difference is that now you will be trying to reach obtainable goals.
While I am disappointed that I never learned to surf, the lesson I got from watching the disabled surfer (see previous blog: “The Power of Self-Encouragment”) was not the clichéd, “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.” Instead, I was reminded that learning to surf was never a priority for me. Sure, I can look longingly at the surfers today and wish I had learned, but in reality, I had other priorities. And because of these other priorities, I have other accomplishments. My primary priority as a young adult was to graduate from college. This required that I work a full time job and go to school at night—which made graduating a very long journey indeed. Thinking about it now, had I wanted to surf as much as I wanted to graduate from college, I would have achieved that goal. I pushed myself to get on the bus every night after work and go to school so I could graduate, just as the surfer pushed himself to get himself and his board back and forth to the ocean each time he wanted to surf.
Acknowledge Where You Could Have Ended Up
I always acknowledge to my clients that it is indeed sad that their dreams didn’t come true. But I also remind them that they are not failures. In fact, I see them as successes. Instead of allowing their childhoods to destroy them, they overcame the abuse, neglect, and abandonment to go on to become decent human beings.
I feel it is important for you to know that there are about five paths that many people who are abused in childhood end up taking:
- Alcoholism, drug abuse, or some other kind of addiction (compulsive overeating, gambling, sex addiction)
- Severe psychological illness (severe depression, self-mutilating behavior, suicidal ideation, dissociative disorders) often requiring psychiatric care, including being put in a mental hospital.
- Breaking the law, often ending up being incarcerated.
- Becoming an abuser
- Continually becoming a victim
Instead of putting yourself down for not achieving your goals, remind yourself of where you could have ended up, considering what you endured in childhood. Think about how close you actually came, in some instances, to being put in jail or in a mental hospital. In other cases, some of you may have actually gone down one or more of these paths for a while and you had to create a new, healthier path for yourself. If this is your situation, think about how hard you’ve worked to stop drinking or taking drugs or to stop being abusive. Think about the work it has taken for you to break out of destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation or being sexually promiscuous or to stop compulsions such as compulsive shopping, stealing, or gambling.
Give Yourself Credit for What You Have Accomplished
You couldn’t have survived the abuse or neglect you suffered without developing attributes such as courage, strength, determination, wisdom, patience, and tolerance. Think about what you endured as a child and what you had to endure as an adult because of your abusive childhood. Think about the obstacles and hardships you have had to[BE1] overcome. Recognize that someone who didn’t have the strength, courage or determination that you had may not have been able to overcome these obstacles. Think about the decisions you made and how some of these decisions saved you from ending up in jail, in rehab or in a mental hospital.
Exercise: I Feel Proud That…
- Think about and write about the obstacles and hardships you have had to overcome and how your courage, strength, determination, wisdom, patience, and tolerance have all lead you to where you are today.
- Make a list of the positive decisions you have made that steered you onto a healthier path.
- Now write about the things you have done that you feel proud of. (pride is the opposite of shame).
Make an Honest Assessment of Your Positive and Negative Qualities
It is very important to get clear about which of your personal qualities you wish to accept and which you want to work on changing. For example, there may be things about yourself that you need to change, such as continuing to mistreat your children or your partner, while there may be other aspects of your personality, such as shyness, that you simply need to accept.
- Make a list of all your positive qualities, abilities, talents, and areas of growth (e.g. your sense of humor, your intelligence, your generosity, your courage, your ability to empathize with others). In particular, identify the strengths, attributes and skills that helped you to overcome the abuse from your childhood.
- Make another list—this time of your negative qualities, traits, limits, and bad habits.
- Now read over your list of positive qualities and really take them in. Allow yourself to feel the pride that comes from acknowledging that you do, in fact, possess these good qualities.
- Read over your list of negative or less than perfect qualities. Try to be neutral and simply acknowledge these aspects of yourself without becoming critical of yourself. For example, say to yourself, “It is true that I tend to be impatient and critical and that I lack very much athletic ability.”
- Decide which of your less than perfect qualities you wish to work on and which ones you need to simply accept. For example, “I wish I was not so impatient and critical and I am working on it. As far as my lack of athletic ability, I think I just need to accept that I will never be a jock.”
- Pick out one or two qualities that you want to focus on changing. Make sure they are traits or behaviors that you actually have some control of—such as taking better care of your body or not being as judgmental of other people.
Be Clear About What You Want to Accomplish
Now that you have a better perspective surrounding past goals and expectations, it is time to consider who you want to become in the future and what goals you want to set for yourself. It is very important that you be clear on what your goals actually are. Be as specific as you can. The previous exercise may have helped you become clear about personality characteristics or behaviors that you wish to change. It is also important that you make sure that your goals are actually your own, coming from inside of you, rather than things you think you should do or are feeling pressured to do. For example, if one of your goals is to lose weight make sure you aren’t doing this because your partner is pressuring you. The following exercise will help in your goal setting.
Exercise: Clarify Your Goal
- State your goal as clearly and simply as you can, either out loud or on paper.
- Write about why it is that you want to accomplish this goal.
- List at least three reasons why accomplishing this goal will make your life better.
As you think about and write about your goal, you may notice that some resistance or fear comes up. You could hear your pesky inner critic telling you that you can’t accomplish this goal, or you don’t deserve to accomplish it. Or you could notice that real fear comes up. Here are some examples of the fears that some of my clients reported:
- “I’m afraid that if I lose weight guys will starting coming on to me.” (A survivor of sexual abuse)
- “I’m afraid if I leave my husband no other man will love me and I’ll be all alone.’ (A victim of domestic violence).
- “I’m afraid that if I stop drinking I will have to leave my husband.” (A survivor of emotional child abuse and an alcohol abuser).
- “I’m afraid that if I open up to people I will get hurt again.” (A survivor of childhood neglect).
If fear does come up it is important to allow yourself to acknowledge it and feel it instead of trying to push it down or ignore it. We discussed the importance of “leaning into” your feelings earlier in the book. For many people simply admitting the fear helps to dissipate it. Leaning into fear does not mean getting lost in your fear. In fact, leaning in can help you become aware and free in the midst of your experience. You can even talk to your fear to discover what it is trying to tell you, as in the following exercise.
Exercise: What is Your Fear Telling You?
- Begin by allowing yourself to feel the fear in your body. Fear is often felt as a tightness in the throat or stomach, tension or tightness in your jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, hands or other parts of your body.
- Now ask your fear, “What are you trying to tell me?” or “What do you need or want from me?”
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and listen deeply to see if you hear fear’s voice inside you or if you get a sense as to what your fear is telling you.
Clients have reported hearing everything from: “I want you to accept me,” to actually hearing information that helped them understand their fear better.
It is also important that you determine whether it is a fear based on reality or if it is based on shame. The first example from above, being afraid that men would come on to her, was a fear based on reality. When she lost weight men probably would come on to her. This is a common fear for survivors of sexual abuse. Knowing that the fear was real helped this client to focus on learning ways she could deal with the situation, including learning ways to assert and protect herself.
In the second example, the woman was not dealing with a fear based on reality. The truth was, she would find other men who would love her and she wouldn’t end up all alone. Her fear was based on shame. Her husband had often told her that she was so ugly and so stupid and so crazy that no man could love her, and she had grown to believe him. I encouraged this client to continue to deepen her self-compassion practice in order to rid herself of the shame she felt due to the abuse.
Continuing to deepen your self-compassion practice will probably help you with most of your fears. As your shame continues to subside you will find that you feel more and more like you deserve good things, including being able to reach your goals. Try saying to yourself (out loud is preferable), “I deserve to reach my goal” or state your goal specifically, such as “I deserve to lose weight” or “I deserve to have a good relationship in which I am respected and loved.” If you find that you can’t say these words and believe what you are saying, if you find yourself resisting these words, it is probably your shame talking.
If your goal is to stop an addictive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, sexual addiction) and you are not already in a 12 step program, I urge you to join one. Being with others who have the same problem and who share your struggles with shame will be immensely beneficial for you. It will also help you counteract the feelings of isolation that often go hand-in-hand with shame.
Also, deep healing is possible by being in a group of people who share the same issues (e.g. groups for survivors of sexual abuse, groups for codependents) and feelings. Being able to share your deepest thoughts and your deepest shame in a group of people who will not judge you will help you to continue to heal and will therefore help you to achieve any goal.
Replace Self-Criticism with Self-Correction
One of the most significant steps in developing self-encouragement as a practice is to make the important distinction between self-criticism and self-correction. Paying attention to this distinction will help you to give up self-criticism.
So, what are the differences between the two? First of all, self-criticism is shame-focused, while self-correction is compassion-focused. Because of this, there is a huge difference in how we feel when we receive the two. When you engage in self-criticism you often feel disappointment, anger, and frustration with yourself and sometimes, even self-contempt.
When you are being self-critical you are usually looking backward and focusing, with regret, on what you did or did not do, often in a self-punishing way. This doesn’t encourage you to do better in the future—in fact, it often undermines your confidence. Compassionate self-correction, on the other hand, is forward thinking. With self-correction, the focus is on the desire to improve and learning from past mistakes.
Self-criticism can blind you to the positive emotions and desires within you and can fool you into believing that only if you have a stick at your backs will you reach your goals. Self-correction focuses on growth rather than perfection and any suggestions for growth or change are given with encouragement, support, and kindness.
This information is based on the work of Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., from his book, The Compassionate Mind.
Another way of comparing self-correction with self-criticism is to imagine that you are learning a new skill and that you have two instructors who trade off teaching you on alternating weeks. Your first instructor is a critical teacher who focuses on your mistakes, points out what you are doing wrong, and appears slightly irritated with you, as if he thinks you aren’t concentrating or trying your hardest. The second week you get the other teacher—a compassionate teacher who recognizes that learning new skills can be difficult and is generally kind and supportive. He focuses on what you do well and builds on that. When you make a mistake or have difficulty learning a particular aspect, he praises your efforts and tries to develop an understanding of where the difficulty lies. He gives you clear and accurate feedback on how to improve your performance. He doesn’t become irritated with you when you make mistakes or have difficulty catching on, but gives you the message that making mistakes is part of the learning process.
Which of these two teachers would you prefer to work with? Which teacher do you feel is going to help you to learn a new skill or behavior better? Your answer is probably the obvious—the compassionate teacher. You can intuitively sense that you would learn much better with the compassionate approach. And yet you may still hold onto the idea that self-criticism and that pesky inner critic serves you in some way. You may still tend to believe that if you give up self-criticism you will become lazy and won’t achieve as much. You might still believe what you were told as a child—that criticism keeps you humble and prevents you from becoming arrogant or conceited. It makes sense that it will continue to be difficult for you to give up these ideas completely. Nevertheless, I encourage you to make a commitment to switch to compassionate self-correction. Even though you won’t be able to give up self-criticism completely, by doing the best you can, step-by-step, you can bring yourself into more balance.
I will offer still more information on self-encouragement in my next blog.
The information in this blog is from my book, It Wasn’t My Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion.
Gilbert, Paul. (2009). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.