I love good story-telling. I’m a big TV and film watcher (a little picky, but the stuff I love, I love.) Yes, I watch Game of Thrones, and Teen Wolf, and Star Trek, and the Night Shift. I have been a fan in the past of Law and Order, and ER, and Friends. The movies I treasure are too numerous to mention…

But as much as I love a good story I’m always reminded that even the best of stories (with the possible exception of Game of Thrones, which almost goes too far in the opposite direction) leaves out a lot of the slow, frustrating, tedious times that also make up any real story.

You know what I mean. A young couple meets, falls in love, goes through some adventures, maybe doubts their relationship once or twice, then it’s the final scene, love triumphs and the credits roll. Ta da!

Not usually how it works in real life. Makes for good, speedy story-telling, but it doesn’t do justice to how a developmental process actually rolls. That young couple will have some fights, some miscommunications, some friends interfering in their new-found relationship. They will have financial challenges, be pulled in different directions, have to reconcile things they don’t like about each other, etc.

The same is true of overcoming anxiety. We read the books, we go to the therapist, we learn some techniques – and then a lot of us expect that we’ll sail a clear path to freedom. (Or, at least, we hope like hell that there will be a relatively painless path to freedom.)

Thank you for playing, but no – that isn’t how this goes. NO question there will be growth, and victories, better days, clearer thinking, better understanding. Fear will diminish and there will be progress.

Setback 4

But there will also be setbacks. There will be times we stall out and can’t seem to make any headway. We will seem to reach plateaus and only see frustrating sameness on the near horizon.

That’s normal. That’s part of this getting smarter/wiser/more skillful process. Let’s talk about it –

Setbacks

Let’s first of all question this word setback. It sounds like something from sports, although it’s actually a word from architecture (of all things.) The primary common definition however is what most of us think it means – “a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely.”

That is certainly what it can feel like when things suddenly seem like we haven’t learned anything! We think we’re making progress and then we wake up one morning and it is like we haven’t learned a damn thing. Skills seem absent, motivation seems in the toilet, we’re scared and confused and it FEELS like we’ve lost something.

We haven’t lost anything. Let me repeat that: we haven’t lost a dang thing. Learning is learning. Skills are skills. Sure, if we sat on our hands for years and didn’t do anything we might see skills atrophy, get rusty from disuse. But just ask anybody who ever learned to ride a bike and then didn’t ride a bike for a long time if they regained their bike-riding skills when they got back up on a bike –

Because they did. Same thing for the skills needed to deal with anxiety. Sure, it isn’t fun. And I’m going to explain in a minute what setbacks actually are. But it isn’t about losing anything.

Setback 2

So, what ARE setbacks?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your Seat Belts

ANYONE who is fighting their way up and out of anxiety runs into several standard “bumps” in the road. I’ve only realized recently that not much has been written about these bumps (at least not that I’ve found) so it’s time to shed some light on the subject.

One thing that will bring on a setback is several of our fears coming at us at once. We’ve been dealing with our fears, we’re getting some skill at unpacking, we’re starting to feel the burn of exercise well-done, and then bam! We get hit by what feels like all of our fears at once.

In other words we get overwhelmed. We were OK with one fear, or maybe two, but here’s eleven – let’s see how you do now! 🙂 Of course we’re going to try, reflexively, to return to old habits of anxiety management. And there’s the rub – we’re just defaulting to old ways of anxiety coping.

Really listen to that last piece: we are reverting to old habits of anxiety management in the presence of temporary overwhelm.

We’re not losing what we’ve learned. We’re not “backsliding.” We’re not stupid, we’re not failing, we’re not fragile creatures made of spun glass – we’re just in a learning curve, just building some skills, and we’re not where we’d like to be just yet. Perhaps most importantly IT ISN’T A CRISIS. It’s just anxiety banging on our doors again.

What else can trigger a “setback”? In my experience physical debilitation – i.e., getting sick, dealing with a physical injury, either one – can put us off our game. We forget that our minds and our bodies are tied together – and weakness in one can bring challenges in the other, either direction. So we’re not at our best when we’re sick or injured – and it will be easier to again go back to old habits.

Setback 1

This can also be set up by simply a period of sustained lack of decent sleep. Most people here in the 21st century have a very skewed view of sleep and our bodies’ needs. We act as if we were machines that can be driven hard, day after day, and not need to take ourselves off the highway for a rest stop. Anxiety can also impact our sleep quality. In any event we NEED to gear back and get quality rest, to the extent we can.

And if we don’t we can lose track of our developing skills. When I say lose track I don’t mean lose completely. I simply mean that we are still solidifying our skills, and with the drains of illness, injury or lack of sleep, at this point in the learning curve, we get distracted and default, again, to old anxiety habits of thought and reaction.

The third way I’ve noticed that we get a little sideways in our skill-building is falling back into the habit of self-abuse and self-criticism – self-hating behaviors. (See the posts that start HERE around a detailed discussion of the impact of learned self-hatred on our anxious thinking and what to do about it.)

We, the solid majority of us, learned that the way to make progress or measure up was to hammer on ourselves as a form of self-motivation. I don’t know that it ever works well for most of us, but it sure as hell doesn’t do much for sustained motivation, and it’s terrible when it comes to self-confidence, self-encouragement and self-care.

The worst part is most of us have no idea we’ve defaulted back to that crappy, self-abusive recrimination that we learned to do so well in an earlier time in our lives. Before we know it we’re yelling at ourselves, cursing our weakness, treating ourselves like wayward children. And none of that does much for our skill-building at converting anxious thinking to problem thinking.

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This is again, simply, time to practice getting our thinking clear – in this case, recognizing and shutting down the self-critical voice that ISN’T helping, getting our thinking clean and getting back to framing problems as problems, not failures or character flaws.

Need to be focused on changing thinking – but succumb to the temptation to trying, futilely, to controlling Flight or Fight by force of will.

Stalls/Plateaus

Where I grew up (Las Vegas) there are these interesting features in the desert landscape called mesas. They are these flat-topped little hills or mountains. I don’t understand all the geology behind them, but they are pretty great if you like to hike. You laboring up this steep hillside and then suddenly you’re on this flat, elevated place where you can see for miles around. And you can REST from the climb too.

Mesas are not a bad metaphor for what happens to us sometimes in our journey up and out of anxiety. There’s no question that we want to climb and be DONE with this work. It can get so urgent for us that ANY delay in our progress MUST mean we are doing something wrong, we’re screwing up, oh my gosh what am I going to do, etc.

But every ascent, every journey, is going to have slow times and plateaus. Every hiker knows that you can’t ALWAYS be heading uphill, ALWAYS making the steep ascent. Sometimes you have to walk level ground, or even go downhill a little ways, to continue the climb.

Same thing applies to any skill acquisition we’re doing. Skills need time to settle into our brains and bodies. Skills are, in some respects, collections of habits, and habits take time to acquire/get fixed in our behavior. And, as I’ve just discussed, old habits sometimes try to assert themselves. There’s practice time in dealing with securing new skills over old skills.

There’s also learning capacity too. Sometimes we just need some time given all we’re learning AND what’s happening in the rest of our lives.

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Sure, we’d like things to move faster. No question. But some processes can’t be rushed. Skill-building can be focused on and helped along, but for the most part it will take time, along with all that effort, to get where we want to go.

Setbacks, Stalls and Plateaus – part of the Work

Maybe the most important thing to take away from this blog post is that there is nothing to be afraid of when we find ourselves not making the forward progress we’re so impatient for every minute of the day. This, too, is not a crisis. It’s just part of the learning curve.

And these periods of less-than-rapid growth ARE helping us grow. You might even say these times are essential to help us really get this work in our bones.

There are a LOT of people offering counsel and advice on how to overcome anxiety these days. Hardly a surprise – there are a LOT of people dealing with anxiety in the world.

Just look at the ads on TV for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications! Holy crap! Then cruise through Facebook or on the web in general for all the groups that people can join to talk about anxiety and depression.

When you get enough of that wander into your local bookstore. Dozens of books on this anxiety stuff there. When you get done with that go on Amazon and see how many MORE books there are for you to read and study.

Of course there are scads of therapists (such a good idea in our fight to break anxiety’s hold.) And your doctor stands ready to prescribe some of those medications I mentioned above. Books, doctors, medications, therapists, groups – there is a lot in the anti-anxiety arsenal these days – more than any other time in human history.

The quality of that advice and help varies of course, and there are some goofy/less-than-useful notions about anxiety’s origins and permanence that can get in the way, but in general we have some good stuff floating around. One thing, however, sometimes goes missing in our thinking about how to get free of chronic anxiety and depression.

Hard Work 3

We have to do the work. We have to wade into our fears (more specifically our fearful thinking) and pin them down. We have to identify the thinking that is scaring us, see it for what it is – crisis thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis – and start wrenching it out of crisis status in our thinking.

We get to do all that while we deal with the firestorm of Flight or Fight activating as our fears get tackled. UGH. It’s a kind of one-two punch – not only do we have to get down and dirty with our fears, we have to deal with our reactions to our fears.

This is work any of us can do. I say that over and over again in this blog. And while the information, advice, counsel and support is vitally important, at the end of the day we have to get down to the work. Today’s post is about getting as clear as possible on what is required of us to make this work WORK.

Step 1: Wade in

Anxiety is a crafty son-of-a-gun. It doesn’t usually care if you’re talking about doing something about your fears – as long as it just STAYS talk. Yak all you like, anxiety says, as long as you don’t actually start doing anything serious about your fears.

That’s a metaphor, of course. Our anxiety isn’t a living creature inside of us. 🙂 A more accurate description is that we’ve walled our fears away, and we can hear the growling and howling of our fears over that wall – and it scares us.

Hard Work 1

It FEELS safer to leave those fears locked up behind that wall in our minds. The howling and growling never really go away, of course, but if we make enough noise, stay busy enough, we come to believe that we can live with the racket.

In fact we do what we can to run away from our fears. It isn’t because we are weak or chicken – it’s because our fears seem so huge, so impossible to deal with, that it just makes sense to run as far as we can from them.

This works – often for a long time. It works in the sense that we succeed in mostly keeping our fears out of our daily lives – or at least we don’t see significant impact from our fears. If we find a medication that helps shut down Flight or Fight – as most of the anti-anxiety drugs do – then it’s even easier to keep away from our fearful thoughts, stay away from that wall and the howling.

But for most of us, sooner or later, we find our fears getting bigger and our capacity to run shrinking. It’s (again with a metaphor) almost like those fears are breeding there, behind the wall – making more and more things for us to fear.

We often try to keep running. It’s worked before, right? We might increase our meds – and that can work for a while too. We get busier. We do whatever we can to keep our fears at arm’s length (preferably further.) But if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty likely that your capacity for running or avoiding has reached a limit.

Here’s the weird news: that’s good. It doesn’t feel good – it feels terrible – but it is still good news. It means it is time to wade in, bust a hole in that wall between you and your fears. It comes down to either dealing decisively with our fearful thinking or continuing to live with what has become, over time, chronic anxiety.

Step 1: wading in. That’s where it all begins. It may be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And it is the absolutely vital step in the right direction. What does wading look like? It is turning to identify and unpack our fearful thinking, seeing it for what it is, and keeping at that unpacking until our fears become what they really are – problems.

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Step 2: Unpack our Fears

Here’s the core of the work. We have to identify how we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. We have to get specific and we have to muck around in here long enough to get those specifics.

There’s no way around this – it’s scary. It’s scary for two reasons. The first is that we are treating these fears as crises. We think they are REALLY DANGEROUS, death-risky, literally, and it rocks our world to look at our fears face-on. The second reason is that we fire up Flight or Fight in our bodies when we confront these fears (hell, when we even seriously consider confronting these fears we can do that.)

I’ll get to Flight or Fight in a minute. But step 2 is as much as anything about sitting with our fears while recognizing that, however we feel and whatever we’re worried about, it’s all based in “what if” fears about what this COULD mean.

Let’s repeat that: our fearful thinking is all about what COULD happen. It might be 10 minutes from now in our thinking, or it might be next year, but it’s all about being afraid of the future. Flight or Fight reactions can muddy the water for us – it FEELS like it is about right now, this second – but being anxious by definition means we are afraid of something that COULD happen at some point in the future.

That’s it. That’s the heart of it. I’m NOT saying it’s easy! That’s the principal reason I’m writing this post today. It’s scary and it’s hard.

It’s also the way we start to get free of our fears. As long as they stay in the shadows, behind the walls of our Comfort Zone, there isn’t much we can about them – and they will continue to scare us.

Part of what makes this so hard to start is that running WORKED – probably for a long time, longer than we are conscious of in our daily lives. We’ve gotten used to running as a way to deal with fear. But our fears have a way, sooner or later, of catching up with us.

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So let me encourage you to expect to be tempted to run – and to actually run – even if you want to stay and get your fears sorted out. It’s natural and normal.

The scariness of facing our fears (and what they seem to say about our future) often leads people to start this work again and again, only to back away. That can go on for years. That’s legal too. Sure, you’re not getting anyplace – but you’re also not a freak for not leaning in and finishing this in one titanic fight. 🙂

Lots of other people pump up their meds and manage their fears a while longer that way. NO shame in that. It’s easier, frankly. Doesn’t mean we’re actually dealing with and overcoming our fears, but we’re not bad people for taking this route!

To turn and deal with anxiety is to, for a while, actively disrupt and make something of a mess in our worlds. That can range from some mild disruption of schedules and activities to having to temporarily pulling back from most our lives to deal with these fears. That’s tedious, messy and brings its own fears of failure.

But this is the route that will get us actually over our fears. There are posts HERE, HERE and HERE that describe the basics of unpacking. The work isn’t complicated – just scary. (Sure, Erik, JUST scary. Easy for you to say! Don’t think I don’t remember how scared I was when I started this work, and for the first months after that start.)

There’s another reason this freaks us out – we have to

3) Contend with Flight or Fight yelling at us

The nano-second we get serious about facing down our fears Flight or Fight jumps up and starts getting in our face. We’ve been telling it for most of our lives that this or that fear is too terrible to examine, and now suddenly we’re wading in.

Flight or Fight is a big piece of why facing our fears is scary. It’s bad enough that our fearful thinking has us up in the hypothetical future contemplating disaster – Flight or Fight then begins screaming at us, making our bodies and emotions seemingly freak out. It is of course just doing its job – trying to get us to safety – but we’re not running from actual, right-now danger – so it isn’t helping much. Or at all.

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We come to link all kinds of theories to that freaking out. We are having a heart attack. We are going crazy. This feels awful. We’re going to die from these sensations and feelings. We must be defective or damaged or just weird. We build a whole second layer of fears around these sensations and feelings being generated by our frightened thinking.

So wading in means two things: facing down our scary thinking AND facing down our reactions to our reactions (to Flight or Fight.) It isn’t easy. It can be very challenging some days, and especially at the start of this work. We’re having to identify our fears and sort them out while riding this wave of feelings and sensations.

It’s hard to stay clear on the work when we get in this place. It’s one reason to do it in pieces, small bites, at the start, or anytime we’re getting overwhelmed. It’s like learning any skill, only this skill (more accurately, set of skills) is also SCARY.

Our thinking tends to degrade to some degree when we’re in this place. Flight or Fight isn’t big on lucid thinking – it’s only got one mission, get everyone to the life boats – and so it will take practice and patience to stay in our skins when we’re doing this work.

But that’s also part of what gets us smarter and stronger in dealing with our fears. When we can spend even a little time in that place, staring our fears in the eye and keeping Flight or Fight semi-clear in our thinking, we begin to see how much we’ve been running from thoughts, rather than actual danger.

BOTH skills are necessary – unpacking our fearful thinking back to problem thinking AND learning to see Flight or Fight for what it is.

Hard Work 4

Let me be clear: this is hard work. Not impossible, not dangerous – but hard. A lifetime of training to RUN AWAY in one form or another is a hard habit to break when we’re as anxious and keyed up as we get when we wade into this work – or even seriously think about it.

What gets in the way?

Well, one thing that makes this work hard and frustrating is that it is slow going, at least some of the time. We start to identify and unpack fears, we start to get our arms around the smoke screen of reactions that is Flight or Fight – and then we seem to lose it all. It seems to all go right out the window.

Call those setbacks, or bumps in the road, or whatever you like, they are part of the learning curve. (More about those in my next blog post.) They are part of ANY learning curve, whether it’s a sport, a dance move, a course at school or learning to cook. They are part of us learning skills and mastering those skills.

The only difference is… we make those bumps into a crisis. 🙂 Oops. Oh well – we’re fighting anxiety, nothing very surprising there. We’ll learn from these times too. As I’ve argued in other places these are essential, actually, in our deeply learning our skills.

It isn’t particularly speedy work either. It takes TIME, and practice, and steady effort. None of us like that fact either – we’re SICK to death of anxiety and we want it gone NOW. Been there, did that. Doesn’t change that it takes the time it takes.

Something else that trips some of us up is how untroubled and carefree the rest of the world seems – at least from our viewpoint. It sucks that we’re fighting so hard and every else seems to be at recess – at least mentally and emotionally.

Hard Work 2

Of course we don’t know where they are. We don’t know their struggles. And it doesn’t matter anyway! We are where WE are. We have the work we have in front of us. As I’ve said other places it’s perfectly OK to whine, bitch, kvetch, have a tantrum – do what works for you. But then get back to the work.

One Foot in front of the Other…

There are lots of famous quotes about how nothing of worth is free. I don’t know about that. If I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d be holding something of worth, at least financially. 🙂 But learning a skill, or set of skills (in this case, learning to think clearly and quickly and well about what’s a problem, what’s actually a crisis, how to manage Flight or Fight and how to dismantle the crap of anxious thinking) takes time and practice.

And the payoff is enormous. Take it from a guy who had all but shut out the world, living in an OK double-wide trailer in the crappy part of town, terrified to go outside, convinced he would never, ever have the life he wanted, enduring constant panic attacks and certain it would never get better.

I was wrong. These are skills I learned – and so can you. So take up the help, learn the information, get the therapist you need, retain that coach, rally your support in family and friends and folks online, join the group, whatever you need to make this work. And then lean in. Want some help from a veteran? Hit me here – happy to assist.

What would a day look like for someone who was practicing recognizing self-hate, and once realizing it, made a move towards self-compassion? Hmm. What would that look like…

Let’s see how I do in painting this picture for you –

A Self-compassionate Morning

When we’re in the fight to break anxiety’s hold mornings are often the hardest time of the day. We are running with shields down, given that our brains are in some respects not at full power – we don’t have our full mental abilities instantly at our command.

And that’s a time when our fears can really pounce on us. The self-doubts, the what if thinking, the worry about Flight or Fight reactions, can all bubble to the surface and start pounding on our brains before we’re prepared to do battle with them.

This is a great, great time to start in with some self-compassion practice. The first and possibly most effective thing we can do is simply recognize that we’re doing all this in the first place.

I don’t mean get lost in our fears. I don’t mean a self-abuse party where we berate ourselves for being so weak, or so dumb, or so whatever we’re using to abuse ourselves, BECAUSE we’re fighting fear or wrestling with self-doubt.

Self-Kindness 7

No, I mean take a moment (or 10) and see where we’re losing ourselves in what if thinking. I mean take a moment and see that we’re up in the future, or see that we’re abusing ourselves with self-hatred, or both. An act of compassion towards ourselves is as basic as seeing that we’re failing ourselves with fears of failure and loss – just that much is self-compassion.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But in fact it’s huge. Remember that anxious thinking is a habit – and just seeing the habits as they start their tired, tedious routine is a step in the right direction. Even when we don’t feel like we have much strength or ability to do much about the habit in that moment (which can be especially true in the first minutes of waking up for the day) means that we’re starting to disrupt and see through that habit.

Of course we can do more. We can not only call out self-abusive behavior, what if behavior – we can also unpack it. We can identify where we are in the future and actively move away from that thinking, not only seeing it for what it is, useless worry and conjecture, useless speculation about our fears, and practice making it back into what it is – a problem, at most.

Sure, it scares us. Of course it does, given how much energy and focus we’ve poured into it. And what’s a great act of self-compassion? Shutting down that pouring, to whatever extent we’re able to in that moment.

One great way to help that process is to just GET UP. Get our happy feet on the floor and get moving. Yeah, I know how tempting it is to just lie there and pour over our failures, or how unhappy we are, or how happy everyone else seems to be, or how unfair it is that we have to do battle with our fears, or whatever we’re caught up in there in our beds.

Self-Kindness 9

Get up. Engage the day. Remember that fear is a mental process, however much it freaks out Flight or Fight and starts physical and emotional reactions. Just the act of engaging our world – taking a shower, making some breakfast, walking the dog, walking ourselves, engaging in some small piece of work – is an act of compassion towards ourselves.

A Compassionate Day

OK. We’re up, we’re semi-clean, we have had our Wheaties – what else can we do to disrupt self-hate, what if thinking, and practice compassion towards ourselves? How about some active blocking of self-hate habit thinking?

One habit we can develop, overwriting older habits of self-reproach, self-anger, self-hurt, is to practice stopping self-hating behaviors. (See the last several posts for the specifics.) Are we calling ourselves idiots as we drive to work? Are we berating ourselves for yesterday’s failures, mistakes or flubs? Are we anticipating all the ways we’ll screw up the day?

Stop. Practicing stopping. This is active self-compassion. Of course it isn’t that easy at the start, and we’ll make it hard for ourselves more often than not. That’s alright. Practice anyway. You don’t need to be whipped, verbally or any other way. You need to figure out what is actually useful in addressing those past failures or potential future mistakes.

And self-abuse isn’t useful. Something that might be useful is to start looking at what is working – where we’re doing productive things, doing things with some skill and ability. We can also start giving ourselves some credit for effort, knowing that skill takes time to develop and strengthen.

Are we bringing in some income? Hey, nice work. Are we getting some tasks done? Excellent. Have we assisted another person today? Well done. Have we stopped, even for a few moments, the stream of angry, frightened self-talk that too often fills our thinking? Kudos – you’re moving in the right direction.

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When we are caught up in self-hating habits ANY kindness to ourselves is a good move, a brilliant move. It’s remarkable what even a few efforts of recognizing and blocking self-hating routines can do for our energy and self-esteem.

Of course the habits push back. It’s useful to remember that we started these habits because we thought they were helping us – keeping us safe, helping us toe the line, not get in trouble or bring down disaster on ourselves in the worlds we learned them in the first place. They won’t just go quietly. They will fight, and we will fight to keep them.

A Compassionate Evening

The end of the day can be a prime time for self-hate to come out and dance around our heads. We’re tired, we’re probably facing down some challenges or what if fears that have been lurking to pounce on us when we dropped our guard – it can easily be a time of self-hating habit routines to power up.

One effective question we can ask is how can we practice some self-care, right now, for ourselves? We who wrestle with self-hate and anxiety can be prone to “never standing down” – never really ending the work day, never really punching our mental timecard and calling it enough for now.

Recognition and blocking are both tools we can employ. And we can up our self-compassion game by also surrendering our special status view of ourselves – i.e., that we can work 20 hours a day, that we must make sure everyone else around us is happy before we can even think of taking a break, or that serious people would work until they couldn’t keep their eyes open.

We can practice self-compassion by actively practicing allowing ourselves to be HUMAN. Humans rest when they are tired. They take time off. They yak with friends, watch silly TV shows, take a bubble-bath, harass the dog, make cookies.

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Self-hating, as I keep saying, is a mental habit. I use the word disruption a lot in this anxiety work. Too often we’re racing down mental grooves we established (with help) long years ago. Part of this work is bumping up out of those grooves, deliberately messing up the old routines so we can establish new ones.

Self-hate is a kind of internal slave-driver. We’re never enough. We never do enough. We are never good enough. Self-hate is at the most basic level the voice of our fears, telling us to try harder, fix everything, make sure we never make mistakes, so we can avoid the terrible futures we predict in our fearful thinking.

Anything that gets us off that hamster wheel is a good move if it disrupts, disputes, moves away from and/or shuts down that thinking. It’s legal, it’s healthy, it’s self-caring, it is active self-compassion.

We won’t stop Self-hatred by Wishing

This dismantling self-hatred work I’ve been addressing these last seven blog posts doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work. It means getting feisty with our own thinking, not just rolling over and playing dead when it yells at us, but standing up and demanding different thinking, different ways of treating ourselves and thinking about our world.

To fight anxiety is to, by definition, deal with self-hatred in some flavor or flavors. Truly self-compassionate people are not lost in anxiety. (That isn’t your cue, by the way, to then beat yourself up because you SUCK, because YOU are such a loser that you fight self-hatred and anxiety.) 🙂

I recommend T.I. Rubin’s book “Compassion and Self-hatred.” And if you’re more of a conversation person you can reach out to me – I’m always happy to have a discussion about the work of breaking the nasty habit of self-hatred.

Kindness vs. Love 3

Self-compassion. That’s been the goal of the last 5 blog posts – a discussion of what a life lived in self-hate looks like, and how self-compassion might look. To do that effectively we have to understand first where we’re practicing self-hate – see the shape and size of that practice.

With that understanding let’s get our arms around what compassion towards ourselves means in a daily way.

What we need to shut down Self-Hate

TI Rubin (I’ve been referencing him and his book Compassion and Self-Hate as the primary source for these last few blog posts) says we have three weapons we need to employ in the diminishing of self-hate and the encouragement of self-love:

Recognition
Blocking
Surrendering Special Status

As I mentioned in my last post step one is seeing that we are doing self-hate in the first place. Self-hate doesn’t carry a sign around that says “hey, notice me! I’m self-hate!” Self-hate runs in the background of our thinking and behavior.

Worse, it comes to seem and feel like it’s vital, crucial, the only thing that’s keeping us from disaster (self-hating self-regulation. So step one is just identifying where and how we’re doing self-hating behavior- recognition.

Self-Kindness 2

Here’s an example of self-hating behavior: invariably defaulting to what anyone and everyone else wants, rather than actually checking with ourselves first to see what we need and want. I know, it sounds like what a saint would do. (More about sainthood later.) But it isn’t.

How could it be? Do your wants and needs really NEVER matter? Are you never entitled to want something or need something that runs counter to what someone else wants or even needs? Of course your needs and wants matter. And of course you’re entitled to express them and even ask for them.

But you’re not there yet. It’s too scary! So start by at least seeing that by shutting those down you’re practicing self-hatred – that’s a great first step.

Don’t want to watch the grandkids this weekend? Really just want to stay home and make salad? Don’t feel like visiting your tedious in-laws? Do really want to spend time at the beach? Guess what? You can at least see that you’re shutting those down automatically, disregarding what you want, rather than pretend that you DON’T want those things. That’s recognition.

And when that self-critical internal voice starts shouting about how selfish and how cruel and how uncaring you are then you’re experiencing self-hate. BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ONE THING THAT’S SELFISH OR CRUEL OR UNCARING ABOUT YOUR WANTS OR NEEDS. (Unless you’re planning to sell guns in Africa – then I have concerns.) 🙂

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When we see that we are free to, at the very least, have our own wants and needs (and the freedom to listen to them, at least take them into account!) then we’re recognizing self-hate as the voice that says we’re selfish pigs to even consider what we want.

Here’s another example: when we encourage and nurture relationships that are less than healthy ones we are practicing self-hate. You know the relationships I’m talking about – the people that suck us dry, put us down, put us last on their priority list, constantly criticize us, take advantage of us and then cheerfully make us feel bad when we try to push back.

You know these people! This is the sister who can’t find anything good to say about you. (Yes – I said sister. Family who we allow to treat us poorly don’t get special status because they are family.) This is the boyfriend or girlfriend (or husband or wife) that refuses to negotiate and has to have everything their way.

This is the co-worker who takes shameless advantage of you. This is the friend who only calls when they need something, and otherwise has no time for us. This is the teenager who eats your food, makes a mess of the house, refuses to get a job and then tells you what a terrible parent you are because you won’t let them do whatever they want.

(Any of these people sound familiar?)

That’s self-hate too. SEEING that for what it is, just doing that one small thing, is a big first step towards a practice of compassion for ourselves. Being able to be honest with ourselves about doing self-hating behavior is fiercely useful in disrupting the habit of self-hate.

Blocking

No, I don’t mean a body tackle – although it might be helpful sometimes if somebody showed up and hip-checked us in mid-self-hate. I mean that we, having recognized self-hating behavior, make an immediate move to stop it, shut it down.

Let’s go back to not acknowledging that we have any needs or wants. Want to block that self-hating practice? Acknowledge those needs and wants. Just that simple step is giant. Notice I haven’t even said yet ACT on those needs and wants. I’m just saying tip your hat to those needs and wants – treat them as important, something to respect.

Hey, you can go a step further. You can SAY OUT LOUD those needs and wants. (I know, crazy, right?) I’m STILL not insisting that you have to demand your way. I’m saying allow your own thinking to get out into the world, gently affirming your right to HAVE needs and wants.

(And, of course, if you’re in a situation where such verbalizing and boundary-drawing puts you at physical risk, well, that’s self-hate too, isn’t it? You may not be able to safely say and feel what you want. Which just means you get to practice scary self-care by getting the hell out of that situation – thoughtfully, strategically, keeping yourself safe but slowly moving towards compassion towards yourself by making a way to get free.)

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Or let’s say we’re talking about those life leeches I was talking about earlier, those people who take shameless advantage of us? Seeing them for what they are is step 1. Step 2 is disengaging those people from our daily routines.

Of course anxiety will rear its ugly head the moment we start even thinking about doing that. We will have thoughts surface like if I get away from this person I’ll be totally alone, or they’ll hate me, or maybe I deserve to have people like this in my life. Ugh.

7 billion people in the world – you’ll find other friends. It may not FEEL that way right now, but trust me – there’s a lot of humans running around on the planet at the moment. The real problem isn’t that you won’t be able to find new people in your life. The real issue is that we’re scared of actually standing up to self-hate, risking another’s anger and frustration.

And as far as them hating you – well, you don’t know that, do you? Maybe you’ll push back and they’ll wake up. Maybe you’ll push back and they’ll take off. But their reaction doesn’t really matter at the moment, does it? This is about you – and doesn’t that sound crazy? Something actually being about you? 🙂

Quick note: using self-hate to try to block self-hating behavior isn’t so useful. You know what I mean. This is when we say “what the hell is wrong with you! You’re an idiot for hating yourself! Cut that crap out right now! Don’t be so stupid!” And useful words like that…

Don’t use self-hate to block self-hate. In this case fighting fire with fire isn’t cool. By all means get a little impatient. Don’t be afraid to use some gentle sarcasm to poke fun at the rules and iron bars of self-hatred. But keep compassion for self at the front of your thinking.

Practicing very basic self-love on YOU is really as simple as first recognizing when we do self-hate, and then stopping that self-hate in its tracks. Recognition, then blocking. The third immediate tool we have in our arsenal is surrendering our special status in our own thinking. What in the hell does that mean?

Our Special Status isn’t so Special

It’s simple, really: when we accord ourselves special status we are, usually unconsciously, working to see ourselves as more than human. This is back to those impossible standards and sainthood status issues I’ve mentioned earlier in these posts.

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It might be said that all self-hatred comes down to expecting ourselves to have special status, more than human or even superhuman status in our own thinking. What are some examples of special status thinking?

Anything that demands in our thinking or behavior that we NOT be human is special status. That includes anything that demands perfection of us. If we believe that we can never, ever be angry with anyone we are according special status to ourselves.

Because, you see, humans get angry. That doesn’t mean they pull out an Uzi and hose the room down – yikes. (Weirdly enough we CAN’T get to that situation, that terribly over-reactive, destructive reaction to anger, if we ALLOW ourselves to be human enough to BE ANGRY in the first place.)

No, it simply means that anger is part of being human, being alive. If we think we can never, ever be angry with anyone then we are fooling ourselves, according ourselves special status, and we’re tilling the ground for self-hate.

Here’s another one: we must be everybody’s friend. We’re friendly people, right? Well, not just friendly people – we’re ALWAYS friendly. We’re never NOT friendly. Yup, that’s us, the world’s friendliest person. NOBODY can say that we are not friendly!

Except that’s not human. It’s utterly unreal. It is an expectation that we cannot meet! Oh, I know some of you are squirming in your chairs as you read this special status stuff. I get it. Self-hate generates a lot of anxiety around this discussion. There is risk, we believe, in actually allowing ourselves to be just human, just an ordinary person, capable of not being friendly all the time…

But we’re NOT friend all the time. Of course we’re not. Sometimes we’re really tired, or very hungry, or we’re just on people overload – we need to be left alone. That’s being human.

Again, I’m not saying we have to be jerks when we don’t feel particularly friendly. I’m saying that we’re allowed to not be Friendly Sam all the time. I’m saying it’s legal to 1) see that we’re being self-hating by insisting that we must be friendly all the time, 2) actually acknowledging that we don’t feel particularly friendly at the moment and 3) disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are somehow above the rest of the human race with our amazing, perfect friendliness. 🙂

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We are not saints. We may call someone a saint, but nobody is a saint – not all the time. Maybe that’s a better way to apply this badly-abused term – that we have saintly moments in our lives. But we don’t live our lives as saints.

Even the notion that we’re according to ourselves special status might come as a shock to some of us. We wouldn’t label, consciously, ourselves as striving for sainthood. But if we’re practicing self-hate then it’s a given that we’re striving for a special, unreal, inhuman status in our lives.

We need to have Compassion for Ourselves

Sometimes when I have this discussion with folks I get back a thoughtful “well, yeah, sure, that makes sense. But you know, Erik, I really do never get angry/really don’t have any preferences about what to do with my day/always am friendly/you name it.”

And many times those lovely, well-intentioned people believe what they are saying – at least on the surface. But the truth is they are deceiving themselves. Sure they are. They are terrified of actually having normal, human reactions, emotions, thoughts. It feels very, very dangerous to them, and was trained into them very early in their lives.

We are human. Any really, any step we take towards disrupting self-hating thinking and behavior is a dang good one – starting with being honest about our own humanity.

The world will not end if we have an honest, human emotional reaction to it. The universe will not implode if we decide we don’t really want to make dinner tonight, or we really do want to watch that sappy romantic comedy (over the protests of our spouse or partner), or we feel a little blue and just want to sit in a chair and watch the world go by for a few minutes.

There is an enormous power, strength and healing in this allowing ourselves to be human. We will discover that we have been expending GIGANTIC amounts of energy in the direction of self-hate, and that energy starts to get freed up, starts coming back to us. It is a remarkable experience.

Every time we decide that we matter, that other people can for the most part take care of themselves, that our wants and needs are at least as important as the people around us and that we are allowed to be human we are practicing compassion towards ourselves. And it is very, very good for us and for the world we live in.

Next up, the last blog post (for a while) about Compassion and Self-Hate.

In the last three blog posts I have discussed the role of self-hate in the creation of anxiety, and the various forms that self-hate can take in us. This isn’t some small thing. Self-hate is a kind of mental and emotional cancer, and we ignore it at our peril…

Today’s post is all about, as T.I. Rubin puts it, the “antidote” to self-hate – compassion, specifically self-compassion. Let me quote Dr. Rubin here:

“(Self) Compassion is, ultimately, a state of mind in which benevolence reigns supreme, and in which a state of grace is established with ourselves. This state of grace undermines the promotion of self-hate. In this state of grace loyalty to self, in all circumstances whatsoever, is of prime importance…”

This is HUGE. What that maniac Dr. Rubin is proposing is that we MUST take first position in our own lives, making conscious choices that promote care for us, respect for us, love for us, compassion for us. I love his use of the phrase “state of grace.” Having done a LOT of time in the conservative church I can say that grace POPS for me as a word.

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Because grace implies that I don’t have to WORK for the thing for which I’m seeking grace. Grace is already granted, already present, and is already mine. Grace means no checklist, no set of accomplishments needed before I’m allowed to have grace.

Compassion really means practicing love towards ourselves.

OK, sure, but wait a minute – this sounds selfish and self-absorbed to me…

Yeah, I get that. It sounded that way to me too. The phrase “loyalty to self” sounds like we are always the person in the center of the room, caring ONLY for ourselves, ignoring the needs of others and breezing through life with a careless disregard for anybody but us.

That’s not what we’re talking about here. Not even remotely. That we have to have this conversation with ourselves says just how much we’ve gotten “off-beacon” from what healthy living is all about.

Think of this discussion as a significant “reset” of how we think about ourselves, and what self-care/self-compassion really is. Rubin isn’t saying forget everyone else, it’s all about ME. Here is what Rubin is saying:

1) That our needs, our wants and our desires are at least as important as anyone else’s.
2) That we have both a right and an obligation to ourselves to CONSIDER those wants, needs and desires WHILE we consider other people’s wants, needs and desires. We don’t just default automatically to “sure, you want it, I’m giving it, we’re done.”
3) We are WORTHY of HAVING wants, needs and desires. Just by virtue of being on the planet, walking around breathing the morning air, we get to have those things, and nobody gets to decide otherwise.
4) That if we don’t practice deliberate, conscious and on-going compassion and love for ourselves we are encouraging, actively, the growth and feeding of self-hate.

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There is a WORLD of difference between compassion towards ourselves (what do I want? What works for me? These are my desires and there is nothing inherently wrong with them…) and hey world, forget you! It’s all about me! I don’t care about anyone else and I’m only going to take care of ME! 🙂

Just the need to even have to clarify this says something about how far from real self-care and self-compassion many of us live our lives.

Human, Party of One – Human, Party of One please

Let’s come at the subject another way: all Rubin is asking is that we begin treating ourselves AS human beings. True self-compassion means, well, being compassionate with ourselves for all we are, not just the parts that we think other people will like, or the parts that we think are good enough.

It’s how you would expect a healthy adult to respond to one of his or her own kids. That parent would treat that child AS their child, regardless of whether they were always in a good mood, always had clean clothes on, always said please and thank you, always behaved like a perfect angel.

That parent would hold that kid when he or she cried, comfort them when they were afraid, play with them when they were silly, encourage them when they felt tentative.

THAT’S what I’m talking about when I talk about compassion and love for oneself. Does that sound so crazy? Don’t we wish our parents had been exactly that way? Well, guess what? We can do that to ourselves! Yeah, it’s legal – you don’t need a permit or a license or anything. 🙂

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Compassion forgives mistakes (while working to see what could be done better next time), allows for human frailty (we get tired, we are not always cheerful, sometimes full of self-doubt), permits variation in ability from day to day (i.e., nobody gives 110% all the time.) These are all just different ways of saying that compassion allows us to be human.

It can feel scary to actually practice compassion for ourselves…

As crazy as it sounds (and it should sound crazy) lots of us are afraid to practice self-compassion. We’re willing as heck (lots of the time anyway) to be compassionate to other people. (Although we can also be pretty judgmental, can’t we, about other people’s failings and imperfections? Anxiety/self-hate can do that to us as well.)

The fear we have is that if we “let up” on ourselves our lives will go to hell. It’s like we’re attending a military boot camp that never ends. Don’t think it is some easy thing to back off! Lots of us carry real fear that if we slack off on our vicious, angry self-correction (self-hate) that disaster will follow.

This extends beyond our conscious thinking. We can have nightmares, sudden anxious moments that seem to come from nowhere, and a nameless dread when we begin to try and relax our self-vigil.

Some of us call that angry, punishing voice our conscience. Nothing wrong with having a conscience. That’s the whole point of learning to live with other people in the first place. We need to understand the rules and make an effort to live by them.

But, as Rubin says, most of our consciences are way, way too busy, way too strong. We don’t need a police officer in our soul yelling at us because we’ve broken some rules. We need a compassionate guide that helps us course-correct – when it’s really necessary – and we need a better discrimination about when enough is enough when it comes to our internal critic.

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And that’s really what this is, isn’t it? It’s much more about a voice in our head that tells us we’ve never good enough, never smart enough, never caring enough, never good-looking enough, never… you name it.

Rules. Internal critics. The voices of failure and fear. That’s the stuff from which self-hate and fierce anxiety start and breed. There’s nothing wrong with rules. But rules are guidelines for living, not prisons we need to build for ourselves so we never, ever make a mistake. That’s not human.

Remember the discussion at the beginning of this blog post about developing a practice with ourselves of establishing a state of grace in our lives and minds? Grace says that yeah, we make mistakes. Yeah, we don’t know everything. Yeah, sometimes we don’t perform perfectly, or always know what to say, or sometimes miss a cue or a clue, and that’s OK, even healthy.

This whole fight might be summarized as a battle with perfectionism. We are NOT perfect, and we will never be perfect. I argue that a second element of this perfectionism battle is the misunderstanding that perfect is a STATIC state – i.e., when something is perfect it will freeze in place and always be perfect.

But that flies in the face of our experience in the real world! Nothing, nothing in the real world is in a permanent state of perfection. NOTHING! Snowflakes are perfect – until they touch the ground or our hand. A perfect moment with friends or family is just that – a moment. It comes, and then it goes.

Perfection is one experience, one kind of experience, in the daily flow of life. Heck, if we only got our arms around this notion we’d find a whole new kind of freedom in our thinking and lives.

Rubin talks a great deal about the embracing of the ordinary, human life. We anxiety fighters, we who learned to do an enormous amount of self-hate (all unawares, of course) learned to also try for some ideal, perfect, holy, never-make-a-mistake kind of life, and it’s killing us. We have a fierce, urgent need to allow life to be just life, with its ups and down, triumphs and defeats, and just plain ordinary days.

Because there is an ENORMOUS amount to savor in the ordinary! Afraid of making a mistake, afraid of screwing up, we strive for this postcard-perfect life, and miss the joy and real life that is here, right now, right around us. Anxiety, trying desperately to conjure crisis from problems, also works to block our capacity to just BE in the day.

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You know the list. We have family to treasure. We have friends to enjoy. We have interests we can pursue. We have the work of the day in front of us to accomplish and respect and be proud of. We have goals we can work on – without making it into doing it perfectly, on the first try, to the cheering of enormous crowds. 🙂

Some of us have enormous challenges – physical, financial, relational, emotional. But there’s still, even in the midst of those challenges, LIFE, ordinary life, to savor. There’s still lots of room to practice self-compassion, self-love, and the work of finding real relief from the litany of angry self-hatred and self-punishment that we’ve learned to pour onto ourselves.

Self-love is harder than it Sounds

Ain’t that the truth? We’re born to love ourselves, care for ourselves, respect ourselves, and allow ourselves to be human. And that’s great news, because it leaves us with one elegant truth: we have a natural, inborn drive to love ourselves.

You know it’s true! Some part of each of us is struggling mightily to send love and compassion our way. And that gives us some other good news – self-love, the natural drive to care for ourselves, is stronger than the self-hate we’ve learned to practice on ourselves.

It may not feel that way. That’s where anxiety can make it hard to see clearly. It FEELS so hard to just cut ourselves a break, allow ourselves to be human, fallible and mortal and also capable of success and happiness.

But it is true. With even a little practice on compassion towards ourselves we can begin to strengthen those long-disused muscles. Next up – some examples of living a self-compassionate life.

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The last couple of posts have not been made of fairy dust and rainbows. We’re talking about pretty serious stuff – this stuff called self-hate. When I first read Rubin’s book Compassion and Self-Hate it largely freaked me out.

It freaked me out because it was very, very close to home. I recognized a terrible number of self-hating behaviors I was doing, all unawares, to myself. It freaked me out because I didn’t realize just how wide-spread self-hating was IN ME – in my thinking, in how I treated myself, in how I reacted to other people.

But it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, on this road to breaking the power of anxiety, we HAVE to get freaked out. Facing down fear, identifying the thinking that made us sick with anxiety in the first place, can mean that we have to look squarely at our fears – sit with our fears – before we can do much about them.

That isn’t easy. Lots of people don’t do it. It FEELS safer to run away, hide from our fears. And it FEELS very dangerous sometimes to turn and face our fears.

These blog posts – all the ones with the title “The Vital Importance of Self-Love” are about tools to help identify the primary cause of anxiety – one form or another of self-hatred.

I’ve been talking about what Rubin calls direct forms of self-hatred – chronic self-abuse (mental, physical, emotional), destructive relationships, savage self-criticism, etc. Today’s post is a brief (and by no means comprehensive) discussion of the indirect ways we practice self-hatred.

Understanding both is necessary in our quest to get clear on the thinking that scares us, the behaviors that keep us locked in anxiety, and in changing that thinking and those behaviors. Let’s wade in…

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Indirect self-hate

Indirect Self-Hate can be summarized with 2 basic elements:

Illusions (of one kind or another)
Impossible Standards

Illusions. Illusions, when they are part of story-telling or movie-making, can be brilliant things. They can add reality and dimension, making unreal things look real. That’s outstanding if you’re watching a Star Wars classic. It isn’t, however, so useful when it comes to living life in a healthy and nurturing fashion…

To talk in a helpful way about illusion we first have to get clear WHY in the first place we started generating illusions about life. Illusions serve as self-comforting, self-protective shields in the face of a life or set of experiences that are punishing, even intolerable (especially when we are young, and first learning to deal with the world.)

Illusions buffer us from our world. In the learning about how to cope with the world and other people in the world – the reason self-hate comes into existence in the first place – we can learn that the world is confusing, irrational, unsafe, dangerous, very, very risky. Illusion can give us some breathing room to cope with that pressure and fear.

From that perspective it might be argued that illusion can serve a useful purpose. I won’t argue with that – at least at the beginning. The problem comes when we get to adulthood, get away (hopefully) from that terrible context/situation, and go live in the world ourselves.

So understand that we didn’t set OUT to generate and live in illusions – we did it because we needed some mental and emotional distance from the situation we were in at the time.

Kinds of Illusion

What kind of illusions are we talking about? Let’s start with the illusions we weave around ourselves. One illusion is that we are dependent people – that we can’t take care of ourselves. Weirdly enough this illusion can provide a feeling of safety. We default to other people in the having to manage the world thing, while we retreat behind our helplessness and supposed inability to cope.

This keeps us from taking responsibility for facing our fears – and embracing our dreams. Another illusion that we create for ourselves is that we only exist to make other people happy. Our whole mission in life is to take care of parents, children, husbands or wives, sick friends, our patients, our fellow church attenders – whatever we’ve decided is our sole life focus.

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And this illusion can lead to other illusions. Illusions like we’re nobody, really, except humble helpers, mere servants. And this can quickly turn into being a martyr, a kind of saint, always kind, always happy, never angry… etc.

Ugh! This isn’t human! We’re not dependent children. We don’t only exist to make other people happy. We are not martyrs or saints. We’re HUMAN. We care for other people – but we must also care for ourselves. We are selfless sometimes – and self-caring (at least we need to be) other times. We need help, sometimes – and other times we’re just fine and can manage ourselves, thank you.

When we feed and buy into these illusions of self we’re setting ourselves up and we’re deceiving ourselves. We’re hiding from the world, when what we desperately need (and secretly want) is to engage the world, be in the world.

We do this with other people as well. We make people in our lives perfect – perfectly wise, perfectly innocent, perfectly capable, perfectly intelligent, etc. We put people on pedestals, make them larger than life, generate illusions about them. We make them into saints, make them our safe person, make them our savior.

The Dangers of Illusion

Illusions about ourselves and illusions about other people are, strangely enough, indirect forms of self-hatred. Anything, ANYTHING that gets in the way of honest, clean thinking about ourselves and life is an effort to avoid LIVING life as it actually is – and shuts down the paths to the way CAN BE if we’re engaging in our lives instead of running away from them.

What are some of YOUR illusions? Walk carefully here – these can be world-shaking. You might want to edge up on these, and expect some real Comfort Zone push-back. Our illusions are very dear to us, and they often make us feel safe…

It can be very troubling to start to see the world clearly. I had a moment back in the throes of my climbing out of anxiety (and it was a moment that pivotal in my getting free) when I was taking a shower one morning, and realized (after some conversations in the same direct as this blog post with my therapist) that I had been harboring an illusion.

Here was the illusion: I had told myself for a very long time that other people had great, happy, interesting lives, but it was my lot to live a boring, ordinary, sad little life. Other people got to do interesting work, other people had great weekends filled with friends and adventures – but not me.

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As the shower ran I suddenly had the notion that maybe, just maybe, that was crap. Maybe I had been telling myself this story to protect myself from a life I didn’t want but couldn’t see a way out of, starting as a very young teenager. I had woven this story to keep me from this simple truth: it was up to me to make the life I wanted.

That was scary as hell to me, in that moment. I think that notion had scared me for a long, long time. But on the chilly April morning in Reno in 1995 I found myself frozen in place, my illusion gone. It was up to me. I didn’t know how I’d do it – not then – but that was what was real. I was so shaken, and the thought was so new, that I stood in that shower until the water ran cold.

(I HATE cold showers, btw.)

I finally got out of the shower, but my world was larger and much more connected to reality. And understanding that I had been spinning a story to myself about why I couldn’t get to what I wanted helped me start moving in the direction of the life I wanted. I was scared – but I had also shut down an important piece of self-hating.

Impossible Standards/Unrealistic Expectations

Don’t get me started on this… one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life was when my therapist confronted me on my personal rules for living. When I faced into this exercise and discovered to my horror that I was neck-deep in rules I also learned something else: an enormous number of my life rules were set to impossible standards.

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One rule I had was “never put myself before other people’s needs.” It was bad enough that I didn’t even I was carting this rule around, but it was even more crazy-making to begin to understand that it was literally impossible to fulfill. Never put myself before other people? What if those other people are taking shameless advantage of me? What if what they are doing is damaging or hurting me in some obvious way?

Make no mistake – I tried to meet this standard. And while trying I had the life sucked out of me. I was famous for my giving, caring attitude – and I was in private angry, bitter and exhausted. Erik the Giver was also Erik the Angry – and more importantly, Erik the Afraid. I was afraid of failing that standard, even as I berated myself and beat myself up for not meeting my own standards.

And perhaps most importantly of all, what kind of self-love, self-care, self-compassion can I exercise if I’m ALWAYS putting my needs behind everyone else? Yeah, this is self-hate too. To care for other people, go out of our way for other people, go the extra mile for someone else, that’s all legal – sometimes. But always? Every time? No.

And yes, I know there are people who are reading this exact post and getting scratchy at the notion that they might actually come first sometimes. Sure that makes us scratchy. We learned these rules in an effort to get along in our worlds – literally, for the most part, to keep us safe. This doesn’t feel safe.

Sure, that makes sense. But the feeling doesn’t make it so. And if we were actually at risk for once in a while considering our needs first, maybe it’s time for a change of scenery?

Any standard that sets the bar too high is doomed to fail. And dooming ourselves to fail is an act of self-hatred. No, we didn’t (for the most part) set out to hurt ourselves. But hurting ourselves is something we’re doing if we’re trying to sustain impossible standards.

Maybe the place to firmly plant our flag is the word “impossible.” None of us are idiots. We know when something is merely hard, or challenging, as opposed to when something is impossible to achieve. Let’s agree that when we set impossible standards for ourselves we are setting ourselves up to fail.

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Self-care demands that we moderate our standards to human levels, things that we can actually achieve. To (yes, I know, this sounds crazy) lower our standards into the realm of humanity is to perform an act of self-love.

What are some of YOUR impossible standards? Where are you not meeting your own out-of-control expectations?

Enough with the Self-Hate Stuff!

OK. In the last 3 blog posts I’ve listed out what Dr. Rubin calls direct and indirect forms of self-hate. It isn’t a lot of fun, this discussion of self-hate, but it’s very useful in helping us get some clarity on where in our lives we’re running these automatic programs of thinking and behavior that are in truth hurting us.

As I did at the end of my last post I strongly encourage you to look at the places in your life where you are engaged in self-hating behaviors. I encourage you to do that in pieces. I encourage you to seek out help – a coach or therapist. This self-hating stuff can rock our worlds. I encourage you to journal what you discover, and use that journal to help you figure out where you’re shutting yourself down in an effort to be safe, get it right, not get in trouble – where you are practicing self-hate.

Next up – we’re finally on to the good stuff – compassion.

Indirect Self-Hate 6

In my last post I outlined some but not all of the ways we can bring anxiety and pain into our lives by practicing what T.I. Rubin calls self-hate. We bounced through self-derision, vindictive self-criticism and even depression all being forms of direct self-hate. Today’s post will finish that discussion of direct self-hate.

Please remember that the primary goal of that last post and today’s effort as being the raising of our self-awareness that we are practicing these destructive, anything-but-useful behaviors and kinds of thinking – so we can take action to disrupt them, stop doing them to ourselves.

Psychosomatic Illness

This is a tough one, and it’s tough for multiple reasons. At the same time it sheds some pretty interesting light on the whole experience of self-hating.

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One reason this is challenging is that we live in a culture that has almost completely divorced the influence of the brain over the body. We carry a belief that says bodies are these wacky automatic machines that charge through the day, merrily doing whatever they are going to do, while the brain is sort of a helpless passenger on this wild ride, largely just trying to grab the steering wheel and semi-direct our course.

But this belief has a lot of holes. One piece of evidence for the power of the brain with the body is the Placebo Effect. A shipload of studies have shown just how amazing our thinking can be in regards to our body. Told that we are taking aspirin, for example, we will experience a decrease in pain – even if we have only taken a sugar pill.

And is there a person walking the planet who hasn’t started worrying about this pain or that ache and things have gotten worse, more painful – until we’re distracted by something else and realize later our pain has faded or vanished? Hmmm. Isn’t THAT interesting…

The brain has enormous influence over our physical and emotional reactions. We can and do inflict ourselves with a range of conditions, and we do it very often as a way to punish ourselves – i.e., to hate ourselves. That sounds weird to a lot of people. Why would we do that?

Well, for one reason it’s legal to have a PHYSICAL problem, right? If we’re having a real illness then we can’t be held responsible for having to live our lives, face our deepest fears, or even be held accountable for being honest about what we want and how we feel, right?

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Psychosomatic conditions are not to be treated lightly. They also often shield us from ourselves – i.e., from our own energetic self-hate. If we confront them carelessly we risk a pretty fierce backlash. We need to understand (often with a little therapist assistance) that it is self-hate that is the problem – and that we have to address and deal with that self-hate, not run away from it, dismiss it or pretend it isn’t an issue in our thinking.

Destructive self-medication practices (i.e., alcoholism, drug abuse, over-eating, etc.)

I’ve written a whole post HERE on this topic, but for the purposes of this blog post let’s simply say this: if we’re drinking enough to get hammered every day, or desperately struggling to find the next fix in our drug habit, or eating ourselves into a size 40, or spending all our free cash buying stuff we don’t need, we’re in the grip of chronic self-hate.

Whole organizations have grown up around the effort to help people break free of chemical or other forms of dependency (and thank goodness – they have helped a lot of people find their way out of the most destructive effects of dependency.) In some respects it might be said that it’s easier to see self-hate when it is this apparent/obvious.

At the same time it isn’t like we’re simply trying to self-destruct. We are desperately trying to GET AWAY from our fears – and the medications we are drawn to give us some relief, some shielding from those fears. Never mind that those medications are also wreaking havoc in our lives – and that those medications are, whatever their relief, terribly self-hating.

And, like tackling psychosomatic illnesses, we can’t just rip away our self-medication – not without some tools and support to help us get to the real issues. And of course we’ll fight like hell to KEEP our medications close at hand, often only looking for help when things become so obviously destructive that we can’t hide from ourselves, our fears and our self-hatred any longer.

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The bottom-line is we need to SEE that self-medicating like this is a signal of self-hate. We are comforting our fears – no question – but in that comforting we’re also destroying ourselves.

Constant review of Personal Failures/Mistakes, excessive Self-guilt

There’s no question that it’s useful to look at the errors, mistakes and failures we’ve experienced. Learning is spotty if we don’t gather any information or lessons from such experiences. But this isn’t what Rubin is talking about when he discusses constantly reviewing and rehashing those experiences.

This is really self-punishment. This is the internalized voice of the people who, with mostly the best intentions, tried to teach us to toe the line, get it right, make it work.

In this case however they over-shot the mark! The result is that we developed this massive internal self-critic, a voice that never seems to sleep, but which is always berating us, beating us up for this flub or that mistake.

As in other forms of self-hate/self-abuse we often don’t even see this AS bad. We think we NEED this angry, stern internal critic to keep us on track, getting to the standards that we think are absolutely vital for our self-preservation. We don’t.

We don’t need to revisit and review our past errors and mistakes over and over again. If we’ve taken a little time to glean from those experiences whatever might be useful moving forward – that’s great. If we’ve had a moment or two to shake our heads, ruefully grin at the heavens and promise ourselves we’ll do better/be smarter next time, wonderful.

But an obsessive focus with past failures, not measuring up to our insane standards and then kicking ourselves again and again, only leaves us trapped IN the past – not living in the present. And to live in the present is a crucial component of compassion to ourselves.

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Let’s say that again: compassion is practiced in part by living in the present. As a very wise friend of mine is fond of saying, “we have to give up hope for a better yesterday.” That line always makes me smile because it, at least for me, points out the absurdity of trying to make the past any better by reviewing, rehashing and regretting what has come before today.

And there is another reason we need to get our head out of the past. I say this in a lot in various ways in this blog, but there is a basic truth in the notion that the things we say to ourselves, including the things we say about ourselves to ourselves, has a profound influence on how we then BELIEVE what and who we are.

If I call myself a failure often enough I’ll start believing that I’m a failure. If I call myself a fool for missed opportunities or mistakes then guess what? I’ll have a story running in the background of my thinking that will whisper (or shout) fool to me.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, is an unqualified failure or fool. Nobody is just one ANYTHING. We are a mix of successes and failures, mistakes and glorious triumphs.

But anxiety, if we’re not careful, will have us reviewing and reliving our errors and our low spots, and we wind up seeing ONLY those times in our lives. Flag on the field! The only real way we can actually wind up failing in our lives is if we don’t get our head out of the past and into the present – as well as what we want to craft for our future.

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Creation of Destructive Relationships

This really warrants an entire blog post of its own. As a bona fide creator of destructive relationships in the past I can say with authority that it is fiercely self-hating to summon and sustain relationships that bring us down, make us feel like crap about ourselves or are involved with people that take shameless advantage of us – our resources, including time, and which damage our perception of ourselves.

We of course need healthy feedback from the people that matter to us – the people closest to us, who see us and know us. That’s also a part of learning and growth. But healthy feedback is a very different thing from people that trash us, constantly criticize us, dismiss our successes and play up our failures, make us doubt ourselves, question our motives and dismiss the things we want and need in our lives.

You don’t have any experience with people like that, right? 🙂 Here’s an interesting thought: these people are often (usually?) a manifestation of the things we’re already telling ourselves. In other words these people are just saying the things we’re already saying to ourselves.

And this is likely the reason we’re keeping them around! We already think we’re crap, failures, awful people – and these people are only too happy to support that terrible, self-hating story about us. Yeah, I’m saying that we at some level seek these people out because they feed that ugly (and untrue) story about us.

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That’s self-hate. Nothing else to call it. Not useful. In fact it’s pretty destructive (as I’m guessing you already know.) Compassion for ourselves means shutting these relationships DOWN. Scary, I know. Often we think that we don’t deserve any better than the people we already have in our lives – or that if we ditch these life leeches we’ll never find other people that are willing to hang with us.

That’s crap too. By clearing the decks of the people that would bring us down and feed our self-hating stories we take an immediate and self-caring step in the right direction – several steps, in fact. Yes, anxiety and self-hating stories will power up and shout oh my Gosh don’t do this! You’ll be alone! Nobody will ever want to be around you! And besides, they’re just telling you the truth!

No. None of that is true. We’re not terrible people. We’re not failures. We’re people feeding ourselves an old and damaging story about how much we suck. Time to change the music – and get some new musicians.

Self-hating because we are self-hating!

I hope I don’t have to say much here – I hope that it’s obvious that abusing ourselves because we’re self-abusive is clearly less than useful. 🙂 Except I know from my own experience that self-hate and fear can make this possible.

Calling ourselves and idiot for “being an idiot” is a bad idea. Cursing at ourselves for cursing – not so helpful. Despising ourselves for being self-hating only feeds the hamster wheel of self-rage and self-abuse.

So what to do? Time to start fighting our way off that hamster wheel. That isn’t a bad metaphor, by the way. Hamsters on wheels FEEL like they’re doing something – going someplace. But they’re going exactly nowhere – and they’re in a cage to boot.

Self-hate is a classic hamster wheel. It FEELS like we’re being self-corrective, self-disciplining, but all we’re doing is giving ourselves fresh, painful bruises – or worse, open wounds.

Get clear on this: ANY move towards self-compassion is a good one. Small moves are good, bigger moves are better, but any movement is the right thing to do. So, for instance, if you catch yourself in a tirade that you’re directing at yourself, STOP. Don’t apologize to your little internal critic. Don’t start a new tirade about how stupid you are for doing self-abuse. Just, simply, practice stopping.

It won’t be that easy, of course. 5 minutes (or 1 minute) later you’ll be at it again, trashing yourself for being so stupid, or so stubborn, or so ugly, or so weak, or whatever you’re weapon of choice is in that moment.

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So stop again. And again. And while you’re stopping you can do something else. You can start a new and scary thought – that you’re alright. You’re in fact just an ordinary mortal, just regular human being, a mix of weaknesses and strengths, a blend of failures and successes.

Oh, of course, self-hate will just LOVE that, and start summoning all kinds of examples about what a true and utter loser you are. And when you see that happening, stop again. And again. Quietly and steadily demand that you’re not going to listen to that bullshit (pardon my French) any longer.

It will not go quietly. We started this junk because we were trying to get along, follow the rules, BE SAFE. It will stir up anxiety, no question. But we’ve been running long enough, yes?

As I’ve said in my last post we will need to summon the help and support we can – online support groups and friends, local family and loved ones, therapists, anyone and everyone we can muster to our cause.

Because stop this we must. In my next post I’m going to discuss a little about indirect forms of self-hate – the ways we trash ourselves, hurt ourselves, but which are not as obvious or immediately clear as the forms of direct self-hate I’ve been discussing.

In the meantime, try practicing some compassion towards yourself. Expect a lot of pushback. That’s OK. It’s about time somebody was very, very kind to you.

In my last post I started a discussion of Self-Love, a topic that most of us are in need of better information and skills. I reviewed there that while we are all born to be naturally self-loving we, too often, learn to instead practice terrible self-hating behaviors, all in the mistaken belief that it makes us better people.

It doesn’t. In fact it is really, really hard to be a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, in-the-present-moment human being if we are busily engaged in practicing self-hating behaviors. But what the heck does it actually mean to be self-hating?

I would argue that most of us would never describe ourselves as practicing self-hate. Even the phrase may come off as ridiculous or over the top, conjuring pictures of some poor soul whipping themselves with a cat-o-nine tails, or maybe wrapped up in a straight-jacket and howling in a padded room someplace…

But self-hate is much more subtle than these pictures conjure. Self-hate isn’t always (or even often) a screaming monster, coming at us with claws and fangs. Self-hate is death by a thousand cuts, the slow bleed that leaves us tired, defeated, hurt and wondering what the hell is wrong with us…

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Worst of all, self-hate is very fertile soil for chronic anxiety thinking and living.

It’s equally important to understand that the vast majority of this self-hating behavior is running automatically – out of our conscious thinking or awareness. This work is very much about getting conscious in the first place that we are involved in self-hating, self-downing practices, then doing something about those practices.

With that in mind let’s get clear on the range, nature and specifics of self-hate –

There are a Couple of Flavors of Self-Hate

Self-hate has really obvious ways of coming at us – what T.I. Rubin in his brilliant book “Compassion and Self-Hate” calls Direct Self-hate. Rubin defines self-hate in a general sense as “attacks on self, whatever form they take.”

He goes on to identify two broad categories of self-hating behavior – direct and indirect. Let’s start with direct, obvious self-hate. (And in fact that’s all we’ll get to today – there’s a lot to review just in direct self-hating habits.) Examples of direct self-hate include but are not limited to:

Self-Derision
Self-Vindictive Criticism
Self-Diminishment
On-going Depression
Being “accident prone”
Psychosomatic Illness
Destructive self-medication practices (i.e., alcoholism, drug abuse, over-eating, etc.)
Constant reviewing lists of personal failures/mistakes
Creation of destructive relationships
Excessive self-guilt
Self-hating because we are self-hating!

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If you’re anything like me and you’re reading the list I just created here then you’re probably both feeling your skin crawl (who wants to think that they’re doing any of this stuff?) and identifying where in the past you’ve gotten your self-hate on with one or more of these behaviors.

Maybe the most insidious, dangerous thing about self-hating habits is how COMMON it is, how ordinary and even OK it seems to many of us. We think of it as normal or even useful when all it’s actually doing is tearing us down, sapping our energy and hope and wreaking havoc on how we think, act and move through the world.

Take self-derision (the tendency to identify out loud or to ourselves qualities like stupidity, uselessness, inherent selfishness, etc.) We don’t even hear ourselves when we say “I’m such an idiot” or “I can’t get anything right” in talking about ourselves.

We wouldn’t talk this way (for the most part!) about someone we loved with language like this – and if we did we’d be skirting the edges of abuse with that person. Of course that doesn’t mean we didn’t grow up hearing things like this, both from people in our lives talking about themselves and/or directed towards us…

Humans make mistakes. Humans are on some occasions not as crafty, informed, educated or experienced as the situation might demand. That doesn’t equate to stupidity, uselessness or selfishness. But if we persist in such self-attacks we begin to create a belief that we ARE stupid, useless, etc. And that’s classic self-hating behavior.

Worse, it becomes part of the background roar of our thinking – semi-unconscious or unconscious assumptions of truth about who we are and what we’re capable of doing. And so the drumbeat of self-hatred beats on in our souls, but we don’t hear it, any more than we hear the fridge clicking on or the air conditioner running in the background…

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Self-Vindictive Criticism

Akin to self-derision is self-vindictive criticism. This is the voice of endless not measuring up to our own impossible, perfect standards, with the supposed goal of making us better or helping us perform to those standards. This is more about the specific thing we failed at than discussing something as an inherent quality we possess –

So, for instance, we have dinner for friends and we forget that someone at dinner doesn’t like peas. When they mention this by way of apology for not eating our carefully prepared peas we freak out on ourselves. “How could I have forgotten this?” we shout at ourselves in the kitchen (or even at the dinner table.) “How could I have made such a terrible mistake? I’ve really screwed this up! I’ve ruined dinner for all of us!”

Sound excessive or a little dramatic? It is both – and all in the service of self-punishment for making a perfectly normal, human mistake. Remember our discussion in the last blog post that we learn these behaviors in the service of learning to get along with other people? This internalized, savage self-critic didn’t start out abusing us because it was fun to do. It started because we learned (from other people) that this was necessary in order to get us to perform to crazy high standards of behavior –

So we could be acceptable, good enough in the eyes of those other people. Except that self-review with an eye to self-improvement is worlds away from savage self-criticism and self-derision.

Self-abuse like this tears us down, makes us doubt ourselves, saps vital energy in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our thinking.

On-going Depression

It may seem weird, at first glance, to see on-going or long-term depression in a list of direct self-hating behaviors. I know it seemed that way to me. Rubin explains this in the following manner:

Depression is, in some respects, an effort to numb ourselves from ongoing pain and fear. That numbness is meant to protect us. But numbness is also a signal that we are running from long-term anxious thinking that is scaring us over and over again.

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And numbness also signals that we are NOT taking care of ourselves long-term. Short term numbness may be exactly what we need when we’re dealing with recent loss – the death of a loved one or the end of relationship. Nothing strange or dysfunctional about that.

But continuing to run from our world and the issues in it – that signals that we are in fact not taking care of ourselves. Of course depression is an extreme state – we really don’t FEEL like taking care of ourselves.

Yet that doesn’t take away from the truth that whether or not we FEEL like doing self-care, self-care is an act of self-love, and self-preservation. Which raises another issue: the notion that our feelings are somehow the arbiters of whether or not we should take action in taking care of ourselves! More about that later.

Depression isn’t just about not feeling like doing anything. Depression also always seems to be accompanied by terrible self-regard, almost a self-loathing. We’re not just bad, we’re terrible, we’re useless, there’s no point in us even walking the Earth anymore. We’re not just lonely – we deserve to be lonely, why would anyone love us anyway, etc.

If this kind of self-loathing, self-abuse isn’t self-hate, well, I don’t know what else it could be called.

OK. Enough with the list for now…

So how is this Horrible List of Self-Hating Behavior Supposed to help Me?

I’m glad you asked. 🙂 This list and detailed discussion of just SOME of the ways we practice self-hatred/self-abuse is all about helping us SEE what we’re doing to ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier a lot of us have come to believe that these self-hating behaviors are normal, even useful in keeping us “in the straight and narrow.” We’re wrong. It doesn’t help. It hurts, it does a lot of damage, and it is an enormous energy drain in the face of the already-impressive energy suck of ongoing anxiety. It’s getting in the way and actively slowing us down, even crippling us.

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We need to understand that we’re aggressively involved in our own self-hurt when we are caught up in any of the behavior listed in this blog post. That DOESN’T mean we should start a litany of how awful or stupid we are because we are doing these things. We didn’t set out to treat ourselves this way, and we won’t just stop on a dime.

Here’s what we can start doing (and we’ll discuss this more next blog post):

1) Start catching ourselves when we do verbal self-abuse – externally or internally. Even just becoming aware of this habit is a great first step.

2) STOP doing it when we catch ourselves doing it. This is harder than it sounds. Habits tend to be stubborn and persistent unless we practice new behaviors over time. We need to make an effort – really call into question the automatic tendency to harshly criticize ourselves, or even just default to depression’s logic when we understand that even baby steps towards self-care can make a difference.

3) GET HELP. So much of what self-hate and self-abuse are about is making sure we “get it right” or “measure up.” One of the most effective ways to disrupt that pattern of thinking and reacting is to, in a very real sense, come out of the closet – start acknowledging in a real and personal way your own humanity, your own less-than-perfectness. Scary, I know…

What kind of help? A therapist is a good place to start. Oh, yeah, and while you’re there, get really honest about some of this behavior. They can’t help what they don’t know about.

Next post – more about the nature of self-hate – and what we can do about it.

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Do you love yourself? Does that question sound weird or self-absorbed to you? What do you think of when you think of self-love? Shakespeare, that Master of the Words, had a great quote for this topic: “self-love, my lord, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.”

Self-love doesn’t mean being selfish. Self-love doesn’t mean you’re always staring in the mirror telling yourself how good-looking or amazing you are. Self-love means rediscovering (for most of us, anyway) the real need we have to care for, respect and honor who we are, in multiple ways.

Self-love utterly vital in this work of breaking the habit of chronic anxiety and depression. Every creature on the planet has a healthy interest in self-care – except for us wacky humans. We’re the only species that seems to go out of its way to NOT do good self-care, love ourselves the way we need to be loved.

Self-love isn’t for the wimpy. Self-love isn’t a book of affirmations and a long weekend in Aruba (although those things could be excellent ways to practice some self-love.) Self-love isn’t eating a box of Chips Ahoy or drinking 11 glasses of wine. Self-love is true compassion and gentleness towards ourselves – treasuring our true humanity.

And yes, I said our true humanity. We are human. We are not perfect, we are not limitless, we can’t always be at the top of our game. We will be up and we will be down. We will have successes and failures and more successes. We will have different abilities to “do our best” from day to day. Understanding this is also self-love.

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Today’s post begins a series about self-love, it’s evil twin self-have, and some discussion about why the hell we ever wind up NOT loving ourselves in the first place. Today’s post is more about laying the groundwork for a larger conversation – we have a lot of ground to cover…

We start out loving ourselves

We don’t get born into the world not knowing how to love ourselves. We already know how. We are born self-loving, and we have to learn to not treat ourselves with love and compassion.

Isn’t that strange news? And troubling? It’s true. We are born with a healthy self-interest and a tendency to take care of ourselves. It just makes sense. Any creature on Earth that shows up naturally not showing a healthy self-care is going to have some challenges…

Think about babies. You know, new humans, the tiny ones who can’t do much except make silly noises and wave their arms and legs around, looking cute as heck? Are babies self-loving? You bet! If they are happy they amuse themselves (and often us in the process.) They smile, they stick their foot in their mouths, they look around at the world –

And when they are not happy that isn’t a secret either! They cry if they’re hungry or if they need a new diaper or if they get too tired.

Think about your pet for a second – your cat or dog or horse. They don’t have any problem drawing a boundary or expressing a need, right? Just try taking away their food or petting them too roughly – you’ll know in a hurry if it isn’t working for them. 🙂

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And it’s the same for people too. Well, it’s the same for people UNTIL they start learning about getting along with other people in the world… I’ll go there in a minute. To review: we are born self-caring, self-loving. We are naturally compelled to do self-care. We have to LEARN to not do it.

The Monkeywrench in the Works

We get into trouble when we begin navigating human relationships in our world (what we might call the socialization process – learning to get along with other people.) To live in the world we have to learn some give-and-take, some capacity for negotiating how our world works in relation to those other people.

Part of that learning to get along is learning when we can have our way, do what we want, and when we have to allow for other people’s wants and needs. Nothing strange or terribly difficult about this, at least in theory.

Here’s the thing: too many of us, in that learning process, develop a habit of seriously shutting down what we want in favor of what other people want. You might be thinking at this point hey, what’s wrong with putting other people first? Isn’t that moral, or Christian, or kind, or something like that?

The problem isn’t the putting other people first – although that also gets terribly out of hand, and we’ll get to that later. The problem is learning that SELF-CARE IS WRONG. The problem lies in coming to dismiss, discount and shut down the natural impulse to treat ourselves at LEAST as well as we’re treating other people.

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How do we get there? We get there because we (and those who teach us how to get along with other people, how to live in the world) confuse what we want with wanting it as good or bad.

An Example based on Chocolate Cake

Suppose you want some chocolate cake. Let’s say further that you’re 5 years old. Your visions of heaven include an infinite supply of chocolate cake, and Dad just brought some home. Sadly you also have a 7-year-old sister, and SHE wants some chocolate cake too.

(I’m stealing this example, with some changes, from Issac Rubin’s book “Compassion and Self-Hate”, along with most of the basic thinking of this blog post. It’s a great book – I REALLY encourage you to read it.)

Dad says, in this example, hey, you, you can have half the cake. You’re seriously experiencing Nirvana as you happily gobble your half, and as you’re approaching the last bite you say impulsively “hey, Dad, can I have the rest of the cake?”

Of course you do! What crazy person DOESN’T want the rest of the cake? There is nothing wrong with wanting more. It’s an utterly natural reaction to the yumminess of chocolate cake. Here’s the question: what does Dad do when we ask for more?

Dad has two roads he can travel in this scenario, and what we learn to think about the impulse to want more cake will depend heavily on which one he takes. The first response would sound something like this:

“Hey, I can understand wanting more cake. Only a lunatic wouldn’t want more cake. The problem is that your sister also gets some of the cake, and that’s why I divided it in half. You’ve had your half, and now your sister gets her half.”

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This is that whole socialization thing I mentioned earlier in this post. This is us learning to live with other people in the world. The beauty of this particular answer is that it affirms that we are healthy, normal and natural to want more cake.

If only most parents DID respond this way… because the other road Dad can take sounds like this: “what? You selfish little person! It’s wrong to want more cake! You should think of your sister! How can you be so thoughtless! Can you imagine how hurt she’d feel if she didn’t get some cake? What’s wrong with you anyway???!!!”

Yikes. THIS is also socialization – but the message is very, very different, and the beginning of learning that there is something fundamentally wrong with us wanting to want, need, desire what we want. We begin to second-guess ourselves, distrust what we want, or even what we are…

And of course we have no idea what’s happening to us – just like the people who are telling us that what we are, what we want is wrong had no idea when THEY were told the same thing.

What Starts to Happen

If this only happened once in a while it might not be such a big deal. But way, way too many of us grow up hearing that fundamental parts of ourselves are damaged, wrong, bad – and we, like the little sponges we are, absorb that message as Gospel.

We become fiercely self-critical as those external voices become internal voices. We become our own parent (sound familiar to anyone?), relentlessly correcting ourselves, relentlessly criticizing ourselves for being such terrible people…

There are a LOT of ways this can shake out. The points to take away from this blog post are

1) We are born self-loving, self-caring – like everything else that lives on Earth
2) We have to LEARN to override that self-caring, self-loving nature.
3) We learn that from people who themselves learned that – and internalized that thinking

None of this is, as I’ve said, an indictment of those people who raised us. They were doing the best they knew how. But sometimes the best we know how is still not useful.

Self-criticism, self-punishment, self-hatred is very, very fertile soil for anxious thinking and living. In my next post I will review some of the ways that a lack of self-love can wreak havoc in our lives, as well as some beginning ways to counteract self-hatred – and begin to return to the self-caring creatures we were born to be.

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We are created beings. When I say that I don’t mean in the way most of us might think of creation – i.e., that we are the products of a Master Craftsman. That’s not what I’m talking about in today’s post.

Nope, when I say this I mean we are, mentally (and as a result also largely emotionally) the products of our environment – what we learned and how we come to think about our world.

This isn’t to say that genetics doesn’t play a role. It does, in big ways. But that can only, and only to some extent, set the stage for who we become. Humans are thinking creatures, and our thinking governs an enormous amount of how we deal with the lives we live (and create – too often unconsciously.)

To get free of anxiety we, literally and in significant ways, have to reinvent ourselves – specifically, recreate portions of our thinking, dumping some stuff and creating a new map of our world.

How we think when we develop anxiety

It might seem weird to you when I say that we are, mentally and emotionally, largely the creatures of our environment. That’s because most of us think, at some level, that we “just are”. We were not conscious of a creation process of any kind, or at least most of the time.

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We are not old enough, for example, to remember all the conversations that happened around us while we were gurgling and cooing in our cribs or on that cute blanket grandma made for us. We were listening, however – listening pretty closely as we began to grow and develop.

We heard, for instance, what good and bad meant to our parents, our older siblings, our grandparents, and maybe our, in that fine British term, “minders” – babysitters. Never do this, always do that, this means this, that means that.

We heard things like don’t be selfish, always think of other people first, don’t make that noise, pick up your toys, aren’t those Republicans (or Democrats, or Catholics, or Mormons, or Baptists, or black people, or white people, or poor people, or rich people…) terrible… we heard a lot of stuff, a lot of ways to think about and see the world.

In fact we absorbed a LOT of thinking. Holy crap! And like the little sponges that we were we took it all in, filing it away, building a map of the world. We also had our own experiences, and thankfully also had a hand in building our universe.

But a great deal of that building took place against the backdrop of our training – our learning at the feet of the people in our world. Our thinking and experience was often in the context of their thinking, beliefs, attitudes – and fears.

Yeah, I just said fears. We absorbed a lot of fears as well (or you wouldn’t be here reading this blog.) As I’ve said before in this writing it wasn’t like our family, minders, etc. set OUT to make us anxious. Hell no. They just, by their words and deeds, trained us to absorb those fears, those worries they were carting around.

Did we add to that list? Almost certainly. Did we absorb EVERY fear they had? Probably not. But we had the groundwork laid for us, and too often we built upon that groundwork.

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How that thinking derails us

This blog post isn’t about assigning blame. It doesn’t matter at this point who did what. What matters now is how it happened – because how it happened is also how we can CHANGE that thinking. We’ve covered how it happened. Let’s talk about how we get changed.

Specifically for this conversation we get derailed because we usually have very little idea that we were TRAINED to think anxiously. We persist in the thinking that we are “anxious people” or that “we just think the way we think.” That’s not true, but it is very easy to stop there.

(Worse still there are a cluster of people running around in the world that are convinced that anxiety is something that “just is” – part of us, native to us – and that we can’t ever really get free of anxiety. I use this word a lot in my writing here, I know, but – bullshit.)

To break the hold of anxiety in our lives we have to see and come to understand that we are seeing portions of our lives through a very specific lens of thinking. We learn to tell the story of our lives in very specific ways – unaware, largely, there are other ways to tell that story, experience what we experience.

Example: we learn to evaluate conflict (people verbally fighting, not physical fighting) from the training we received from the people in our lives (by and large.) We learn both from what they SAY about what it means when people fight verbally and from how they REACT to those fights.

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So if we hear that saying cross words to other people is terrible, wrong, bad – if we see people fight and then be reduced to tears of rage and grief – if we see people reacting to verbal fights with long periods of sullen silence and distance – we are likely to take away the lesson that ALL relational fighting is evil and must be avoided at ALL COSTS.

So we can grow up doing anything to avoid conflict – saying yes to things we don’t really want to do, or worse, attempting to do things (like make everyone happy, never have anyone ever be upset) that are literally impossible. Not so helpful. Often a prime source of anxious thinking.

Let me repeat that last sentence: this is often a prime source of anxious thinking, and it is dysfunctional as crap.

Because of course EVERYBODY knows that ANY conflict is destructive, terrible, the very evidence of Satan on Earth – right? Conflict destroys relationships, poisons them, leaves nothing but hurt and damage in its wake.

Or does it? Maybe a better question is does it have to?

You see, we could have learned a different story about personal conflict. Some people (not many, sadly, but some) learn that fighting is often a way to get to difficult subjects, subjects that are scary or hard to talk about. They learn that it’s OK to be uncomfortable for a period of time while people are wrestling with these conversations.

They learn that sometimes the best thing we can do is just listen to the other person if they’re angry, reflect back what they’ve heard and let that person have their say.

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Wow. That’s a pretty different story. So different for some of us that it seems almost impossible. But either story could be true, depending on how we think about conflict, how we come to learn to manage conflict – both of those things.

In other words they learned to see people fighting in a relationship as at MOST a problem – and even a thing that can be useful to make relationships even healthier. We anxiety fighters, on the other hand, usually learn to see it as a crisis – and presto – it makes us anxious.

We’re forced to rethink how we think

What am I saying? I’m saying that anxiety is the result of specific programming in our thinking. If you’re a computer person you understand that programs are distinct from the computer – i.e., what the computer is (the hardware, the wires and chips and such) differs from the programs that run on that computer.

That’s our brains vs. our thinking. We’re not hardwired to think anxiously. We learn to think anxiously, about some collection of issues, and we can learn to see those issues differently/much less anxiously.

This isn’t to say that we are not hardwired to REACT with anxiety once we’re thinking anxiously. 🙂 Flight or Fight is very much hardwired into our systems, our brains and bodies. It better be! Real danger won’t give us time to ponder what to do.

But anxiety isn’t real danger, despite how it feels. And when Flight or Fight fires up in response to our anxious thinking it just makes things worse – it isn’t helping anything.

Thankfully we are not going to have to wait around for Flight or Fight to calm down. Flight or Fight isn’t the problem. Our thinking is the problem. Our mission becomes rewriting the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place.

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(And yes, I know, you’re thinking to yourself hey Erik, Flight or Fight IS the problem! I hate how I feel when I’m all revved up and fighting nausea or dry mouth or feeling panic or about to barf or feeling dizzy or whatever we’re dealing with when Flight or Fight gets going. But it is not the problem – it is a result of our anxious thinking. And of course we start whole trains of anxious thinking ABOUT Flight or Fight – but that’s still, simply, anxious thinking.)

To do that we have to dig into our thinking. We have to in a sense map how we think – identify where in our beliefs, attitudes and habits we treat whatever we treat as a crisis. This is WEIRD for most of us! We are rarely taught to sit down and sort out how we think about the world.

But think about the example I had above, the example about how to react to conflict. How do YOU think? What did your parents do? What did your church teach you about conflict? What did you learn in school? What did your friends think of conflict?

How does conflict make you feel? Because those feelings will point back, with practice on your part, to the thoughts that stand behind them, even if right now you’re not sure precisely why you dislike or even like conflict.

What words come out of your mouth when you think about engaging in a conflict with someone in your life? Even if you knew, for instance, that in this conflict you were the person in the right? That it was important, even very important, to have that conversation, let it turn into a fight, so you could get the issue out in the open and dealt with in a useful way?

That’s a simple, beginning example of mapping our thinking.

We are compelled to recreate/reinvent ourselves

What happens to us when we engage in this work and begin to get our arms around our anxious thinking. That sounds great and rational and pretty straightforward…

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Except it is often anything but. We tend to resist change, we wacky humans, and we really seem to resist changing how we see the world. That includes how we see ourselves and our place in that world. We like things to stay pretty stable/familiar when it comes to our “mental map.”

So if we learned, early and hard, that conflict is dangerous and bad and selfish and destructive, then we’re going to resist changing that map we have of conflict. We can know intellectually that it’s a good idea to rethink conflict, we can nod knowingly when we read or hear people say this –

And then the moment we start thinking about maybe, just maybe, risking someone else’s displeasure or annoyance or actual, outright anger – we flinch back like a hand from a hot skillet. It’s SCARY to think about someone getting upset, we say to ourselves.

We find reasons to avoid it because it just feels so damn uncomfortable. We may rationalize away WHY we are resisting, in this example, risking conflict with another person – it isn’t kind, it isn’t Christian to get angry, it will just cause problems – but at the heart of things we’re AFRAID.

So when we do get down to it – when we do bring up the difficult topic, risk another person’s displeasure – we will have to do a little reinventing of ourselves. We’ll have to try new things, take a chance or seven on making mistakes. We’ll have to experiment with how we do this new thing, approach things this new way.

Fear of Conflict is Just one Example

There are a LOT of other things we learn to think that come from our training. I’m going to discuss some more in future blog posts. All I’m asking you to do in THIS post is get your arms around the notion that your thinking didn’t come from nowhere, or that you are somehow “just” anxious.

You learned to think anxiously. You can learn to not think anxiously. It takes sweat, labor and some reinventing of who we are – but those are all things any of us can do. Scary? You bet? Life-changing? You have no idea…

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