August 18, 2011
I always held myself to a higher standard than the people around me. I thought I wasn’t supposed to make mistakes. I had to foresee every possible problem and plan accordingly. I wasn’t striving for excellence, I was trying to achieve perfection. Of course, I was never able to do anything perfectly. There was always something that I could have been done better. I was my worst enemy.
I grew up feeling that the people around me had the expectation I was supposed to figure things out on my own. Asking for help meant that I was weak. It also meant that I was indebted for life to whoever helped me. Keeping score was necessary to win arguments and to manipulate people. I guess that’s why when somebody did something nice for me, I was always thinking: “What’s the catch?”
I was raised to be a caregiver. I had to “sense” the mood around me and perform accordingly. I learned to become invisible when needed. I learned that the less you knew about me, the less ammunition you had to use against me. I built a very thick wall around me that protected me from pain. While this barrier blocked the pain, it also blocked positive feelings. Brene Brown explains it as: “You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those [negative feelings], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
The only feelings I remember having were anger and guilt. Anger gave me a great sense of power. It gave me the energy that I thought I needed to complete or improve whatever somebody else failed to do “the right way.” Guilt was a feeling I tried to avoid by rationalizing my behavior. This meant that it was never my fault, that if I had hurt your feelings, you obviously had it coming! If you had only done your job, kept your promise, or not changed your mind, I wouldn’t have had to shame you into repentance.
Years of therapy, and developing a drug addiction as the culmination of my inability to make things work, finally cracked the fortress. I started to see that I was only responsible for my behavior and not my disease. I began to understand that I could not love anybody else unconditionally until I truly loved myself.
Along the way I was told that whenever I make a mistake, I should treat myself with love, kindness, and understanding; I should pretend I’m talking to my five-year-old nephew and to extend that tenderness to myself.
It’s a process, some days are better than others. Whenever that harsh critic comes back in my head I drown his voice by repeating Louise Hay‘s affirmation: “I love and approve of myself just as I am” as many times as necessary. It works for me. Who knows? It might work for you too.