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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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I’m going to dive a little deeper today, in my efforts in this series of blog posts to discuss sorting out one of the primary sources of our anxious thinking, namely what I call the “Web of Beliefs” – that tangle of personal standards, goals, truths, shoulds and musts that we acquire as we grow up and move through our lives. It is the background, the invisible frame of our universe, and it wields enormous power in our thinking, largely unconsciously.

As I said in my last post most of us rarely (or ever) examine our bedrock or foundational beliefs. We take them for granted, treat them as the starting points for our lives, in the very same way we walk across our kitchen floor and given little or no thought to the house foundation beneath that floor.

And most of the time, if that foundation is sound, not thinking about it works just fine. But if that house foundation is flawed in some way we may have to pull up that kitchen floor and take a look at it. It may even mean bringing in a contractor or going to Home Depot and getting some advice on doing some repairs on that foundation.

This metaphor is a great one to talk about our foundation beliefs and how they can be very, very fertile sources of our anxious thinking. For one thing it can be challenging to get at the roots of our anxious thinking if we won’t look seriously at what we take for granted, what we assume is true about us, about the world, about how we should act or shouldn’t act, etc.

So, let’s do some more looking at the foundations of our thinking…

Weak Foundations 1

When Beliefs become Weapons of Self-Abuse

There is a book that helped me start this work that I think you might find useful. It is Compassion and Self-Hate, and the author is T.I. Rubin. It is one of the foundational frameworks for my model of Fear Mastery. The basic premise is that we acquire a LOT of rules and assumptions about the world and how we should act in the world, and that some of those rules/assumptions are less than useful.

Let me make that stronger: Rubin’s contention is that we can really get messed up on those rules. I think he is spot on. We can take a rule that in theory should help us navigate our lives better, with ourselves and others, and turn it into a terrible taskmaster, a scourge that does little but generate anxiety and fear in our thinking and behavior.

Rubin calls that taskmaster Self-Hate. It is his argument that as we acquire the rules for living from the environments and people around us (family, friends, school, church, you name it) we can take those rules/guidelines and convert them into clubs to punish ourselves with whenever we fail to measure up to those rules.

(And, perhaps worse, too often those people hand those rules to us AS clubs, and use them as clubs whenever we fail in their eyes. Huge source of learned anxiety for too many of us.)

Here’s an example: I should put other people’s needs ahead of my own. Not necessarily a bad idea in some situations. It is certainly a great rule for getting us out of our own heads and thinking what other people might need. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that it moves from a general rule or guideline to a taskmaster when we learn to insert the word “always” in the sentence “I should put other people’s needs ahead of my own.” And now, without even noticing it, we’ve slipped over into trying for perfection – or, more accurately, perfect safety. And that’s a dangerous dance when it comes to anxiety…

Because of course we’re going to fail at “always.” We won’t always do ANYTHING. We’re human. We make mistakes. But holy crap, THAT can’t be a good idea – now we’re failing if we fail to always put other people’s needs ahead of our own, right?

And, somewhere along the way, we learned that failing THIS rule would be TERRIBLE, a disaster, unthinkable. Maybe we learned that because one or both parents hammered into us how selfish, how careless, how utterly wrong of us it was to NOT put other people before ourselves. Maybe we picked this up from someplace else. All that matters is now we have this constant refrain chanting in the back of our thinking “don’t be selfish. Don’t be careless. Always be nice. Always give up what you want for what other people want. Never, ever, NEVER act unhappy or pissed off or upset.”

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And now we’re approaching hyper-vigilance – we’re constantly worried about breaking this rule, and we don’t even know it! We’re burning tremendous energy and time, we’re becoming (or are already) resentful that we NEVER get to get considered first (or even at all) for what we want and need…

Anyone reading recognize this little rule?

Self-Hate is Trying to Protect Us

Maybe the most frustrating thing about all of this anxiety growing up from one little rule is how it is really just our brains trying to keep us safe. We did learn, after all, that we HAVE to put other people’s needs and wants ahead of our own, and that it wasn’t safe to NOT do that.

So we erected these strong and thick Comfort Zone walls to keep us from the awful danger of breaking this rule (at least in our anxiety-filled thinking it seems like an awful danger) and now we’re staying well away from those walls. We stay so far away that when chronic anxiety starts taking over our lives we’re at a loss to explain why “all of a sudden” our worlds are getting so small and scary…

And, if by some chance we stray too close to those protective walls, if we start thinking that maybe hey, I do matter, what I want should be considered, maybe it isn’t always about what other people want – well, Flight or Fight fires up, sending us physical and emotional signals to get the hell away from the walls! This is dangerous! You’re a selfish, self-centered, horrible person for even thinking that it was OK to not put other people first! What in the Sam Hill are you doing! STOP!

And it isn’t just one rule that is calling the shots in our thinking. Nope, it’s 30 or 40 or 100 rules that are pounding away back there behind the curtains, and we’re like puppets on strings, dancing to a dozen secret songs, and none of them music of our choosing.

It doesn’t have to be like that. ALL of those rules/beliefs/standards are thoughts. And thoughts can be changed and brought under our control. We can certainly examine, evaluate and then choose to keep or discard any thought we have.

That of course isn’t necessarily easy to do, especially when we’re just getting started. It is also challenging when a particular thought is one that we feel is part of our identity – fundamental to who we are.

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But it is work that is infinitely worth doing. In my coaching work I hear people tell me all the time “Erik, I wish I was like other people – people that don’t seem to stress, worry and live in constant anxiety. I really wish I could be like that.” Well, we can. We can change our thinking. It is under our power, with some practice and developed skill.

Let’s Review

1) We all have a LOT of thinking that goes on outside of our conscious awareness.
2) It is in thinking that anxiety starts, breeds and grows.
3) If we’re fighting chronic anxiety (or even just regular bouts of anxiety) then one really useful place to look for the thinking that is causing it is in our foundational beliefs/assumptions/personal standards.
4) We WILL get pushback from our Flight or Fight reflex as we start to examine that thinking and question its usefulness/relevance to our lives.
5) That pushback makes it hard to stay with this work. But it is work that ultimately will give us the power to break the power of anxiety in our thinking and in our lives.

I mentioned in my last blog post that this is work that really requires a way to keep a record of the things you’re learning and challenging and changing in your thinking. You’re really going to need a journal of some kind, paper or electronic. You’re going to want to start an on-going discussion with yourself. This work is slippery – as I’ve already said Flight or Fight will work to get us to stop. And it is often tiring/exhausting to keep “going into the basement” to identify and change this thinking.

Talking about this with other people that we trust and respect is another good tool in this direction. That might be a family member (someone you can relax and be honest around), a spouse, a good friend, someone in a support group, etc.

Another person it can be VERY useful to talk to is a… therapist. Too many of us learned someplace that seeing a therapist of one stripe or another was somehow an admission of failure and weakness on our part. Well, that’s crap. We go to the auto mechanic if our car isn’t working well – we (hopefully!) go see a doctor if our bodies are giving us trouble – why the hell is seeing a therapist any different?

Therapists can create safe places for us to talk about this scary stuff. Therapists are impartial, interested listeners who can help us sort out our thinking with us. They can also help us develop the tools we are creating to give us new rules/modified old rules that work better for us.

Finally, let me encourage you to pick up the book “Compassion & Self-hate” by T.I. Rubin. It is a GREAT resource for helping identify themes/directions in our foundational thinking that take us off-course from healthy thinking. It will also be a very useful guide to healthier, more self-compassionate thinking. Can’t recommend this book enough.

So – Ready to Wade In?

OK, I think I’ve (for the moment) beaten on this particular drum enough – and I hope that you see some useful ways to start tackling that background thinking that is probably driving a LOT of your fight with anxiety. Hit me here at the blog if you have questions or would like to start an email exchange about your work with me.

You don’t have to be the prisoner and helpless abuse victim of your thinking. Your thinking is something you can gain control of and change. You are stronger, smarter and more capable than you know. And it all starts in your brain…

Weak Foundations 3

There are days I wonder if any of us would wrestle with anxiety much if we were not so stinkin’ HARD on ourselves. We who have battled with anxiety tend to be pretty fiercely self-critical, self-evaluative – in a very real sense we are our own worst critics.

I know that it was a huge self-revelation in my history when I began to understand just how many rules I had in my thinking, and how often I failed myself in meeting the standards of those rules.

It is a little disturbing to look back on my thinking in those days, and it makes me wonder how I didn’t see the extent to which I was slamming myself, beating myself up for not measuring up to all my rules.

Let me suggest in today’s blog post that in taking on this work of challenging and sorting out our anxious thinking we have to be willing to examine our personal standards for success and failure. We also have to be willing to reassess them, call them into question, and make some very conscious decisions about what is useful about those rules, and what is only serving to make us anxious/afraid.

Who in the HELL Gave Me All These Rules?!?

We are definitely not born into the world with a massive rulebook. Little kids tend to be pretty easy-going, for the most part living in the moment. They seem in fact to be puzzled by all the rules that most adults carry around – one of their favorite questions when adults state (what seems to them to be) obvious truths or rules is “why?”

That’s a great question to ask. What we usually say back to that curious kid is “because”. But that’s not good enough when we reach adulthood, and that goes double for us anxiety-fighters.

A couple of posts from now I’m going to start a series on what would have been useful to me early in my fight with anxiety. One of the things I’m going to discuss is all the freakin’ rules I had in my life about who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to accomplish, what is right and what is wrong, etc.

I will discuss some of the rules I identified in that early work in those posts, but what I want to focus on in this post is just how hard, how self-abusive we can be to ourselves when we fail to meet our own standards.

So here’s an example of one of my rules from the stressful, self-oblivious younger days: “I should always be cheerful and happy.” Not a bad rule, right? Shouldn’t everyone have this rule? And what’s so wrong with it anyway?

Well, for starters, who in the heck is happy or cheerful ALL the time, whatever they think they should be? Happy and cheerful are both emotional states, and emotions vary – they are never constant. The happiest person in the history of the world gets grumpy occasionally (just like even our blackest days with anxiety see occasional sunny spots.)

And for another the words happy and cheerful are hardly precise measurement descriptions! One person’s happy is another person’s content, and still another person’s just OK. Some of us bubble and babble when we’re happy.

Some of us just go about our business with a small smile on our faces. And still others don’t give much or even any external clues when we’re happy. Emotions are both variable AND subjective.

But wait – it gets worse. When we use terms like “always”, or “never”, or “invariably” we are setting ourselves up for failure. Which then means that we’ve failed, ANYTIME we are not happy or cheerful (according to our subjective measure of what the heck that means.)

And perhaps darkest of all is why the heck I would think that I HAVE to ALWAYS be happy and cheerful. What bad thing would happen if I DIDN’T? Because if I wasn’t afraid of something bad happening then why would I be concerned for this in the first place?

Nope, there had to be a concern/fear/worry here in the first place, and THIS is where our Internal Critic steps in and starts to wreak havoc on us…

Hey – You’re a Human Being – Not Superman

Without launching into a long discussion on this point it is important to remind ourselves that we learned most of the rules we learned from someone else – parents, friends, teachers, the culture in general that we live in. We learned those rules to cope with/live in the world we grew up in.

But in learning those rules for our survival we also created this creature I’m calling the Internal Critic. That Critic came into existence to keep us safe – to be our own personal policeman, reminding us of what we were SUPPOSED to be doing to stay on the straight and narrow.

The hard truths about the Internal Critic, however, are these:

1) However much we needed those rules in our growing up (safety from family ridicule or punishment, fitting in and not sticking out as weird or wrong, physical safety, you name it) a lot of those rules were only possible to keep all the time if we are Superman (or Superwoman.)

And certainly as kids we were not Superman or Superwoman – so we must have failed then as well. Which in turn helped grow that Critic in our minds…

2) We’re not kids anymore! We’re adults with our own minds and our own lives. What only made limited sense back when we were kids now almost certainly REALLY doesn’t make any sense – however much our fear and anxiety would like us to believe that they do. And heck, even they could or do help us now we still desperately need to throttle back our self-expectations to more human levels.

3) A lot of our anxiety – perhaps for some of us ALL of our anxiety – has roots in those rules and personal standards that our Critic is on our butt about, all the time.

I am not Superman/woman. Neither are you. A healthy, not-dominated-by-anxiety life is one where the Internal Critic is challenged, where we examine our rules and standards and start making adult decisions about which ones makes sense, and which ones need to be retooled – or dumped altogether.

And It Isn’t Like We Only Have One or Two Rules We’re Carting Around…

I have mentioned in other posts here that I when I began this process of self-review I had literally PAGES of rules that scrolled out of my thinking. Holy crap!

So it is important to remember that we who deal with anxiety often have a LOT of various beliefs/personal standards/measures of success or failure that are evaluating us ALL THE TIME.

Is it any surprise that when we first turn to face our fears that we can feel completely overwhelmed? And that this feeling can return again and again as we wade into the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place?

T. Isaac Rubin, therapist and thinker, has written a book I’ve referenced in this blog before, titled “Compassion and Self-Hate.” In that brilliant and essential book he outlines how most people have unconsciously absorbed the rules and standards of their family and culture. These rules are often, literally, inhuman – they can’t be maintained over the course of time.

He further discusses how we won’t, simply, allow ourselves to be HUMAN – to do better some days, to do worse other days, but still doing our best with what we have each day. We instead set a standard that, while we might achieve sometimes, or for a period of time, we can’t maintain over the long haul.

Let me reference you back to the rule from my earlier life about my thinking that I should always be cheerful and happy.

Who in the world can make such a commitment? And what potential, terrible self-abuse and self-rejecting thinking and feeling am I creating for myself when I believe such a rule?

I can tell you that I was pretty damn hard on myself. I was hard enough on myself to make myself physically ill with worry that I had wrecked someone’s day with my less-than-stellar cheer/happiness. I was afraid that I had offended and/or hurt people with my failure. I worried about friends and total strangers this way.

In other words I generated a ton of anxiety for myself with just this one failed standard for myself. NEVER MIND how stinkin’ cheerful and happy I was most of the time! Never mind how hard I worked to make other people cheerful and happy!

And, maybe worst of all, never mind how rarely anyone else even noticed I wasn’t being unfailingly cheerful and happy, and how rarely any of them cared if I wasn’t!

It’s Scary to Challenge Our Internal Critic

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing those of us attempting to review and assess those internal standards is the nagging suspicion that we’re somehow slacking off or giving up by doing that questioning. We have learned to be savagely self-critical of our own behavior, and we are afraid that if we stop that savage self-criticism we will fail, be found wanting, be seen as selfish or as slackers.

This might have been a great survival trait in our younger days, when failing to be a strong self-governor of our behavior might have gotten us into serious trouble. Now that we’re grown-ups that self-governing (translate: attempt to constantly measure up to impossibly high standards) can turn into self-destroying.

WE’RE ONLY HUMAN. That it is necessary to remind ourselves of that is just one indicator of how much we DON’T get this basic truth.

The bottom line is we MUST take on our Internal Critic. That mental policeman has had way too much control over our lives for too long. Taking him on will be scary at first – no question. He could be enough to stop the show by himself for a period of time.

But as Rubin says our healthy, natural selves are invariably stronger – stronger because self-care is what we want to do naturally – like any living creature on Earth. Self-care doesn’t mean self-absorbed or the standard definition of “selfish” – self-care means that you are AT LEAST as the other people around, you caring for yourself is anything but selfish.

More about that in later blog posts. For the moment, consider that Internal Critic (whom I sure has raised his voice a time or two during this blog post, yes) needs to be challenged on the way to getting free of the tyranny of anxiety and fear.

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