How not to be hard on yourself

What a strange question. How on earth could we be in a time where hardness toward oneself is not only normal but even celebrated? What do you mean you’re not hard on yourself? How on earth will you get through the day?

‘Hard’ comes in many forms. Hardness, as I am using it, is a kind of posturing. An unwillingness to let ourselves be as we are, a refusal to acknowledge the constellation of our inner system. It shouldn’t be this way; I should be better, be less of whatever it is that’s bothering us. Hard is a denial that, no matter the resistance you harbor, reality really is the way it is, including your response to it. No measure of a hard stance has or will ever change that.

Tibetan-Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön said it as clearly as I’ve heard it – the need for change can be an act of violence toward ourselves. My interpretation is what a wonderful thing to want to change, but the same impulse can easily be co-opted into a kind of intolerance for the perceived ‘weaker’ aspects of who we are. So that we can override these parts in the name of change, with the cost of excluding parts of us that we’re not willing to meet. This is never a good thing. Think back to a time when you were excluded; how did you feel? Those parts of us we push away aren’t any different. They don’t just fade into the background; they become more demanding over time, and often force us into extreme behaviors.

The nature of any system is that all parts belong. That doesn’t mean that all parts need to keep doing what they are doing. Clearly, we’re in the way of ourselves on many fronts. Change is needed, but how we change is the question. A Zen monk once said, “Take the step without making the one you’re on wrong.” Again, pointing to the possibility of inner compassion. And yet we’re not taught to do this; in many cases, the opposite is true. It’s often push or push harder.

The default argument in my system goes something like, “Are you kidding me, I need that pressure. What will I do if I’m not beating myself up to get done what must be done? Softness is not going to get me there! I need to measure: Am I doing enough? Compare and contrast, and so it goes. Always an evaluation, whether in this moment I am doing what I should be doing. It’s binary. Either I’m meeting these inner standards, or something is wrong, and I need to be doing more. The focus is on doing, not being. What would happen if I did soften towards myself? Would I turn into a passive blob and not do anything or not get out of a rut or not become more of who I’m meant to be? Is hardness really the boss of these initiatives?

My mother will say to me (now I see because she loves me so much!), “Are you busy? Or how busy are you?” With the underlying message that you can never really be too busy. The busier, the better, and so the internal dialogue goes something like, “Am I producing enough? I can be in ‘off’ time if there is such a thing, and the pressure is still there. Can you really afford to let yourself rest now? What about the massive backlog of things you were supposed to be doing, never mind forgotten dreams and aspirations? We’ll get to that later.

What about the role of discipline then?

In the ancient world, the cardinal virtues were courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. They are more than a bite-size to chew on, more so a life’s work. Fast forward a few millennia, and the world is a very different place. How we interpret these virtues is surely going to be very different. From the point of view of the ‘hard’ nut western psyche, they could easily be confused as the next shiny object to conquer. I could foster temperance by being even harder on myself, or I could exercise self-control with kindness.

So then, how not to be hard? One way is to be curious.

Experience needs to be digested; everything has a cycle: beginning, middle, end. The same is true for experience; completion brings a sense of being settled. Often, our experiences don’t find completion. Instead, they get stuck somewhere in the cycle and lodge in the body, meaning we take them with us. To attend to these old stories in the body, we need to bring attention to those places. The genius of Peter Levine’s trauma work is that before touching on any of that, we find some stability in the present moment. We look around and remind ourselves that it’s a new moment now. We’re safe, and the evidence is all around. Chances are you are safe right now. As you look around your room, you offer your nervous system those cues of safety. We can remember the ground that’s holding us. None of this is as new-agey as it sounds. It’s a basic reality check. Right now, breath is moving through my body; I’m in a safe place, and everything is in a kind of order beyond my making.

As we bring our attention to this cues of safety, we begin to feel a settling that comes with slowing down. This may even be your safest moment yet, and because of traumas of the past, you are behaving as if it were anything but. Even if you feel quite uneasy, anxious, sad, angry, or any other ‘negative’ experience, the most natural step is to find your ground first. It’s much easier to explore any feelings of unease after you’ve registered what feels safe for you. Now, can you be curious about any difficulty in your system? There is your composure rooted in kindness.


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