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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.

Setback 6

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.

Setback 7

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.

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.

Surrender 6

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.

Self-Kindness 10

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.) 🙂

Self-Kindness 3

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.)

Self-Kindness 5

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.

Self-Kindness 4

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.

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…

Indirect Self-Hate 1

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.

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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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Ugh! We are so afraid of making mistakes! And this is such a mistake! If we are going to break free of the grip of anxiety we must, MUST come to embrace, respect and even cherish our mistakes. When we are afraid to make mistakes we are fiercely crippling ourselves in this work.

Yeah, I know. This is crazy talk. So much of our life training is about avoiding mistakes, presenting ourselves as capable, even super-capable. We have to be seen as grown-up, in control, having it all together. We relegate mistakes to the realm of childhood or idiocy – the former being forgivable IF you’re still a child, the latter being the worst of all sins for an adult –

But learning MUST include mistakes. Nothing of any value is acquired by avoiding mistakes. No skill, no wisdom, no real accomplishment comes from treating mistakes as a mistake to make.

What does it mean to cherish our mistakes?

Mistake 3

Let’s start with the What Ifs…

Someplace on the road to adulthood we learn that mistakes are BAD. They are bad because other people will think less of us (more about that later in this post.) They are bad because it means that we’re stupid, or careless, or not paying attention, or some mix and match of all three.

We can build a whole “what if” portfolio out of this fear of making mistakes. Let’s list some of them here:

What if people see me make a mistake and think less of me?
What if people trust me less because they see me making mistakes?
What if that person is my boss, or co-worker, or customer, or husband, or a total stranger, or…?
What if I KEEP making mistakes? (as if mistakes were some kind of slippery slope to HELL)
What if THIS mistake is THE mistake – the mistake that utterly ruins (whatever we’re doing)?

I’m sure you can add to this list… I do a lot of business consulting these days (it’s how I’m making money until somebody discovers me as a country singer and puts me on “Nashville” for a season or two.) One of the things that working this much in corporate America has taught me is how many people spend enormous amounts of energy and time worrying about making a mistake.

You can’t blame them! Our culture is SO much about success, perfectly executed performance, competition, etc., that it would be odd if people were NOT stressed over the fear of making a mistake. As I mentioned earlier we learn quickly that mistakes are not to be displayed or betrayed to other people.

We learn it in school when our peers start laughing at us for saying a word wrong, or when a teacher is sharply critical of our pronunciation. We learn it in high school under the relentless pressure of other teenagers, our parents or those teachers I mentioned earlier. We learn it at work. We even learn it from our romantic partners!

It’s way past time for most of us to rethink this whole mistake thing.

Mistake 1

Mistakes are part of the learning curve of our lives

Thinking that mistakes are something to avoid is dangerous thinking. Mistakes are CRUCIAL to the learning curve in anything more complex than learning to dry yourself off with a towel. Mistakes are at least as important as teachers to us as doing whatever we’re trying to do right – and some people think MORE important.

As a teacher (and student) I can testify to this truth. One mistake can do more to help correct process, thinking or execution that five efforts where I make no mistakes. (Weird, yes?) Mistakes can teach multiple lessons in one effort.

In fact it is accurate to say that mistakes make us more skillful. Mistakes are a kind of course correction. Speaking of course corrections there is a brilliant example of this from the field of aviation. Airplanes (as in those big 747/767 type planes carrying hundreds of people) are only rarely ever actually on the precise course they need to get where they’re going.

Isn’t that wacky to think about? This modern technological marvel, flying as far sometimes as halfway around the world, is almost never on course. The pilots and the plane’s computer are constantly making adjustments, modifying and correcting that course. It’s off-course much of the time, yet it still gets where it has to go.

That’s not a bad metaphor for our lives. And we don’t even have an onboard computer… we can’t get where we’re going if we’re not willing to risk some, make some mistakes.

Mistake 6

What are some of the mistakes we’re afraid of making?

Making a speaking mistake in public – in front of an audience (even if it’s just at dinner with our family or friends)
Not knowing something we think we SHOULD know
Not remembering something we think we SHOULD have remembered
Confusing two things
Trying something and completely messing it up – or even partially messing it up
Looking clumsy, awkward or not skillful at something
Asking for clarification when we think we SHOULD already understand

I’m sure you can add to this list too. My argument here is that when we become reflexively afraid and twitchy about making mistakes then we shut down a huge and vital source of learning and growth.

A willingness to risk mistakes, take some thoughtful chances, try something and suck at it the first 1-2-10-15-25-100 times is a STRENGTH, an asset, a real skill that makes us stronger, smarter and more agile than most of our fellow travelers on this life journey.

Let’s not forget one of the principal reasons we’re so freaked out about making mistakes

That reason is what other people might think of us. Gulp. Holy crap. This is easily the biggest reason (maybe the only real reason?) we’re so afraid of making a mess, screwing something up, not executing the activity like we’re professionals who have been doing this thing for years.

What makes this fear so dangerous to us as learners is that it develops a terrible habit of retreating from taking chances. When we equate making mistakes with being dangerous we will do what seems safe, and safety when we’re afraid making mistakes is too often to not try in the first place.

Mistake 5

(Caveat: there are of course things we should struggle mightily to not make mistakes at doing… If you don’t know how to drive skillfully yet stay off the freeway when it’s raining, OK? If you’re not a certified brain surgeon don’t do skull surgery, right? On the other hand you’ll NEVER get good enough for the freeway if you never ever drive for fear of not doing it perfectly. Same thing for brain surgery.)

Earlier I mentioned it was OK in our culture to make mistakes if we’re little kids. Little kids are not expected to get it right the first time – at least not for a while. And thank goodness, because little kids have so much to learn… how to crawl, how to walk, how to talk (imagine if little kids were afraid to try when we laughed, as we do, at the mistakes they make?), how to eat, how to follow the hundreds of rules of living in the world with other people, how to read…

We trade away enormous potential for growth, learning and healthy expansion of our strengths and skills when we run from the fear of looking stupid in the eyes of other people. Everybody, EVERYBODY screws up at the start. Everybody, EVERYBODY experiences a learning curve. What could we learn if we were less afraid of looking the fool?

Being willing to Look the Fool sets us Free

Anxiety starts because we treat a problem like a crisis. Breaking anxiety’s hold is learning to see that problems are just problems – and need to be treated as problems.

If we’re terrified of making a mistake we’re treating mistakes like a crisis. They are not. If I make a speaking mistake in front of my peers it’s JUST A MISTAKE. If I mis-remember something, or if I tried something and I made a mess of it on the first or second or third go, well, I was in a learning curve. It isn’t a disaster and the world will not end because of it.

Mistake 8

It might be said that to overcome the fear of making mistakes we need to be somewhat comfortable with looking the fool. Maybe a better way to say it is that we have to allow enough humility in our lives to be comfortable with looking less than suave and perfectly capable while we’re learning to BE suave and perfectly capable.

Did you know that you’re a model?

Don’t think we’re not modeling behavior for the people around us – and helping to support and reinforce the (mostly) unspoken rule to not make mistakes where others can see them – or at all. People are watching us. Our kids are watching us. Our co-workers and subordinates are watching us. Our friends are watching us.

But maybe the most important person that is watching us is US. One of the things I’m learning these days is how we are demonstrating to ourselves all the time if we can trust ourselves or not. Isn’t this an interesting notion?

If we tell ourselves that we want to lose weight, but then we continue to eat donuts every day (not that I’ve EVER been guilty of this) then guess what? We’re not being honest with ourselves, and we are in essence teaching ourselves that we can’t trust us.

Same thing if we’re constantly modeling for ourselves that risking looking the fool is dangerous. We reinforce that habit and that belief every time we back away, every time we wave off on chancing some good learning by risking a mistake.

It’s Time to be more like a Kid

Nobody who is fighting anxiety, about ANYTHING, wants to keep being stuck in anxious reacting and feeling. One of the ways, one of the principal ways we’ll get free of anxiety, is to learn to get comfortable with the risk of mistake-making again.

Mistake 7

Why? Because overcoming anxiety, as I’ve written here many times, is a small handful of skills. And we can only build skill if we’re willing to not be very skillful at the start.

I have told numerous coaching clients that one of the key pieces in my recovery from life-consuming anxiety was focusing REALLY HARD on the work to change my thinking. That meant I had to put other things on hold, or at least put them lower on the priority scale, than this work.

That meant that I had to go out to the store (food shopping, etc.) even though I had had panic attacks in stores and was scared to death to go back. Which meant I would look terrified, and would be forgetful or distracted when I was in the store, looking (I thought) like a crazy person.

It meant that I had to talk to myself, out loud, with my unpacking and challenging what if stories. Sure, it was uncomfortable as hell. But it was either that or succumb to old frightened thinking and run screaming out of the store. (OK, I wouldn’t have probably screamed – I would just knocked over old ladies, children and in-my-way store clerks on my way to supposed safety.) 🙂

Of course I didn’t get it right the first time. I got obsessed over my what ifs again and again, at home and out in public. Of course I started this work and then got caught up in my dizziness, or my numbness in my hands, or a sense that I was doomed and I should just give up. Sometimes I had to walk in and out of the store and call that much a victory.

And I couldn’t do it just once. I had to get utterly focused on doing it again and again and again on my way to getting some skill at challenging, disrupting and changing my thinking. And it wasn’t just at the store. It was just about everywhere. And it took time. And I had a tendency to really slam myself for looking the fool (because of course I was convinced I was looking the fool.)

But surprise – I learned to change my thinking. I learned to not give a damn about what other people thought of me. (And really – what terrible thing was I doing to them anyway? Embarrassing them? I wonder now if anybody actually noticed – or, if they did, if they didn’t just shake their heads in pity and sympathy and send me good vibrations before they want back to buying cabbage or whatever.)

Perfect

Look Foolish – It will do you Good

Don’t think I’m kidding. We NEED to get comfortable with the risk of making mistakes (well, OK, the total certainty that we will make mistakes.) Hell, we’re making them anyway – if we’re being honest with ourselves.

Consider today where your fear of mistake-making, your refusal to risk looking the fool, is holding you back. Because there is nothing quite so freeing as learning to not give a damn in this direction.

Today’s post is about one of the things that makes most anxiety fighters pretty pissed off in their journey out of chronic anxiety (as well as just plain folk who are wrestling with a serious fear.) Here’s the thing: this journey to freedom from anxiety is anything but clean, neat and easy.

I’m not trying to scare you off or anything. 🙂 Seriously. One of the reasons I began this thinking and writing around overcoming anxiety was a half-formed notion that, by compiling the best and the most lucid thinking and tools around breaking anxiety’s hold, I might also find a less struggle-filled, less challenging road out.

Because it was me too! I wanted it to be easier, simpler, not nearly so frustrating! I think most of us want it to be neat and tidy, a linear progression at the very minimum, and, ideally, hell to heaven with a couple of motel stops.

I think in fact that we can make it significantly easier. But here’s something I’ve relearned in the last couple of years: it isn’t just the road. It’s also the people traveling on that road. Most of us we are going to make it messy for ourselves – because of our training, because of our unwillingness to steadily fight through the battles with Flight or Fight, because we just get bloody tired and want a damn break.

In other words our training and our own inclinations slow this process down and make it messier. We can, however, make it less tedious, less crazy-making if we can get a little clarity on why it’s messy, slow and hard, and with that knowledge in our pockets take some steps to diminish some of the tedium, some of the frustration, and make things happen a little faster.

Messy 1

Problem 1: we got set up to be Anxious Thinkers

I’m never comfortable with this conversation, but it has to be said – we learned to be anxious thinkers. (Standard disclaimer here: I’m not setting out to malign, trash or call nasty names when it comes to anyone’s family, school experience, church experience, etc.

t however remains true that this is a thinking problem. Given that this is a thinking issue, and that we have to LEARN how to think, it then follows that we learned to think anxiously.)

Be clear: nobody said to themselves “gee, I know, I’ll make this kid anxious as hell.” Of course they didn’t. But then it might be said that’s true for lots of our learning. Sure, some of what we learn is very consciously applied to us – how we should act in public, how we should use language, what we should care about, etc.

But then there’s some of the problem right there – we are learning all those things through the lens, the focus of the people that are trying to teach us these things. And those souls are themselves carrying thinking that has the potential to make us anxious. In fact a lot of THEM are thinking anxiously – and with the best of intentions (at least most of the time) they are passing that thinking on to us.

Why is this so important to stress in this blog post? Because we have to see, really have to get under, the truth that part of what holds us up, slows us down is deeply trained, old, out-of-conscious-thinking thinking.

Which means that we won’t just breeze into our brains and whisk away that tedious old anxious thinking. Nope, we’re going to have to get in there and do some work, face down what we consider fundamental, basic assumptions about the world if we’re going to unseat anxiety from its throne in our lives.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: brains are lazy. They want to expend the least energy possible to get the job done. (See my post HERE about the nature of habits and how that applies to thinking.) We develop a thinking routine, whatever it might be, and then we just set it running in our skulls, ready to pop up when we’ve told it to pop up.

Here’s an ugly example: stereotypes. We all do them. We have an experience or two and then, with our lazy brains, we categorize something or some kind of situation or some kind of person as this or that. Another name for this is prejudice (under some circumstances.)

All women are emotional. All black people are natural dancers. All Asian people are smart. All guys named Erik are nice guys. (Well, maybe that’s just me…)

Messy 4

Prejudice seems easy to think around when it’s somebody else, doesn’t it? But when WE have prejudices it doesn’t always seem quite so easy. We find ourselves rationalizing, defending our stereotypes. “Yes” we say, “but I’m not being prejudiced. In MY case I’m just telling you my experience…” prejudice, stereotyping, is one of the dark sides of the brain’s habit to make assumptions (another way in some respects to describe thinking habits.)

Little kids don’t just magically have prejudices, right? They learn them.

Sure, they might learn them from direct experience (and the assumptions they might make in those experiences) but way more often they learn them from the people around them.

Same thing for us anxiety fighters. So what does this mean for making the journey somewhat easier? We HAVE to get serious and build a little basic skill around a practice of introspection – i.e., examining our thinking, questioning our thinking, calling it out into the light and asking ourselves if this is useful, accurate or healthy thinking.

An Anxiety Example

Let’s say I assume that only people that are in a relationship with someone romantically are truly happy. Translation for the cheap seats: people who are alone CANNOT be happy. Too bad, so sad.

Wow. That has some potential to make us anxious, yes? Worse still, it’s running in the background. So let’s say further that at the moment I’m alone – not in a serious romantic relationship.

That means I CAN’T be happy. Worse still I don’t even really know, consciously, that I’m carrying this crock of you-know-what around with me like a stinky sock – nope, I’m just moving through my world, feeling anything from a nagging sense of discomfort and sadness all the way through swirling grief that my life is so damn miserable, obviously, because I’m alone…

Messy 2

And of course there are triggers all around us. Couples holding hands, commercials during our favorite TV show for diamond engagement rings, invitations to other people’s weddings or anniversaries, you name it. We feel sad, depressed, flawed, unlovable, you name it. And guess where all those feelings are coming from?

Our brain’s thinking that happiness is impossible solo. This isn’t limited to discussions about happiness. We could also decide at some point, based on our thinking, that we’re not capable of taking care of ourselves. So forget happiness – now we’re talking about SURVIVAL being threatened if we’re alone.

Oops. There’s some room for anxious thinking there, yes? This is one of the reasons our fight with anxiety isn’t the smooth sailing we’d like it to be. Our thinking won’t just go quietly when confronted by our need to change. It’s become a habit, and habits need energy, clarity and practice to change.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Problem 2: We don’t like being Scared

I know, that’s huge news, right? 🙂 It’s all very well and good for someone to talk about the process for confronting our anxious thoughts, for dealing with the reactions of Flight or Fight, but when we start having those anxious feelings, having our body do weird things that scare us (racing heart, sweaty all over, feeling cold, mouths going dry, knees knocking, vision getting blurry, etc.) then it’s a different story…

It’s tedious as crap, but this is easily one of the biggest reasons we run from this work with our anxiety. (See the posts HERE and HERE for the most common reasons we avoid this work.) But it isn’t that we just avoid the work. We make it HARDER to get the work done because we’re so tempted to flinch back from the sensations and feelings of Flight or Fight.

Messy 6

We learned to do that too – only mostly in this case because we had no flippin’ idea what in the hell was going on when it first starting happening to us. We have to start writing new habits, and those begin with new habits of thought.

Your heart is racing. OK. Crisis or problem? Yes, yes, it FEELS like a crisis – I get it. Been there did that. Or maybe it’s that terrible nausea sensation – like you’re going to hurl right now – accompanied by a profound sense of despair. Or it could be that numb feeling in your hands or all over your body and a sense of being trapped. Lots of combinations here.

NONE OF THEM ARE DANGEROUS. We can’t just tell ourselves that and expect it to stop feeling scary. We have to confront the thinking and confront the Flight or Fight reactions that will come along when we start pushing back on our fear.

Those sensations and feelings are going to surface again and again, both because we’re confronting scary thinking AND we’ve learned to see those sensations and feelings AS dangerous. I know I’ve written about this a lot in this blog. It bears repeating.

There are an enormous number of people charging through the world right now who are significantly slowed down because they just don’t want to confront Flight or Fight’s warning signals. (I’m not even talking about the millions and millions of people who have never STARTED the work to get free of anxiety for the exact same reason.)

They want SO MUCH to be free – but it’s just so stinkin’ frustrating, scary and tedious to have to experience Flight or Fight pushing back on us SO HARD. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t do this forever. It does ease off. Why?

It eases off when we start changing our thinking – both converting our old crisis thinking to problem thinking (which stops Flight or Fight from firing off in the first place) and when we stop making Flight or Fight a crisis. We go from “oh my God not that sensation/feeling!” to “oh yeah, those tiresome sensations/feelings again.” Practice, time and steady work takes us there – but only if we’re changing our thinking, doing the work.

Messy 3

Problem 3: We get Damn Tired

There’s one more reason that this work slows down/stalls for us. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. We forget that our brains use a lot of energy – as much as 20% or more of the body’s total energy output – and brain work is real work. Do enough of it and you are going to be TIRED.

We’re doing multiple things when we face down our fears. We are confronting old, scary thinking. We are learning a habit of self-reflection and a comfort with asking ourselves hard questions.

We are fighting the temptation to flinch back from our body’s reactions to our what if thinking. We are having to remind ourselves again and again that we’re OK, that we’re not in crisis, that we’re not going to die.

And we’re still trying to have some kind of life – i.e., get stuff done, eat sometimes, go the store, hassle with the bank, maybe get work done, etc. We give away a lot when we fight anxiety! It’s not a picnic energy-wise! 🙂

Lots of us have a funny story about this energy cost. Anxiety fighters in general wrestle with insanely high standards of personal performance (one of the prime sources of anxious thinking.) REAL work should be something like making dinner for 20 people, remodel the extra room and cure cancer, all while hardly breaking a sweat.

THIS can’t be real work, can it? We don’t really produce or create anything when we’re doing this work, right? WRONG. We are literally rebuilding our thinking from the ground up. We are facing down tigers (even if only conjured in our thinking) again and again and again. We’re learning whole new ways of living and thinking and reacting.

Not small stuff. Energy-draining stuff. And of course life keeps coming at us. (Not very nice of life sometimes, but such is life.) Most of us don’t get to go to Aruba to overcome anxiety. (Hey, there’s an idea – I should get someone to fund a Fear Mastery Center in Aruba… any takers?) 🙂

Depression 3

So we are going to get tired, and being tired we’re going to slow down some days.

Finally we NEED to take breaks in this work. We can’t do it 24/7. We have to step back, regroup, catch our breath. Nobody does anything all day every day. Taking breaks (a, day, a few days, a week) can sometimes be when what we’re learning solidifies, becomes the new thinking that blots out the old thinking, the new habit that replaces the old habit.

This Work is Messy and Not a Straight-line Progression

We can stop anxiety from ruling our lives. To do that we have to be clear-eyed about how the process works and give it the time it takes. As I’ve said here before it took us years and years, decades for most of us, to get where we are, bogged down in chronic anxiety. It will take a little time to get out.

Not years and decades – but months of steady work. Well, when I say steady, I mean more or less steady. With lots of bumps, and some setbacks, and some relearning what we think we already know, and some self-doubt, and some victories, and some more bumps… you get it. 🙂

Embrace the mess, my friends. It’s a mess worthy of making. At the end of all this work is a life that isn’t ruled by anxiety. And that’s worth all the hassle and mess.

Messy 5

In my last post I discussed our very real need for good boundary-drawing skills in our fight with anxiety. I wanted to share some examples of good boundary-drawing (and learning to deal with the consequences, good and scary, of that work) in today’s post.

Good Fences make Good Neighbors

As I have said in earlier posts one of the debilitating things about learning to be an anxious thinker is also learning that self-care is selfish, or cruel, or ungodly, or some other untrue thing. Let’s make sure we’re all clear on this: learning to draw healthy boundaries IS self-care. I would argue that good self-care can’t really flourish in the absence of our ability to draw clear, self-respecting boundaries where other people end and where we start…

One of the most common places people walk over our boundaries is the use (and abuse) of our personal time/support. Those people will ask for baby-sitting help, a long-suffering listening ear to stuff you’ve already heard, assistance with a project they want to get done, company for them to an activity they don’t want to do alone, etc.

Here’s the thing: them ASKING isn’t the problem. It is us not thinking we can say NO, thank you that’s the problem. They are actually allowed to ask all they want. We humans don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a community, a culture, a city or neighborhood or town, and we both have the need and the right to ASK.

Boundaries 100

But we also have both the NEED and the RIGHT to say no, I’m sorry, I’m not going to help you with that. I know. That sounds a lot like “I hate you and wish you were dead” to some of us. 🙂 We learned deeply in our younger days that ANY no was risky, selfish, arrogant, mean, or other silly and untrue words.

It was certainly true with me. I can say (with a certain amount of embarrassment these days) that I couldn’t tell anyone in my universe a simple, direct “no, sorry, I’m not willing to do that.” So instead what I did was made stuff up – that was one tool I used to avoid having to say no. Holy crap, I had to build some pretty elaborate stories!

You might know some of these tall tales. I was already committed to helping someone else (makes me sounds pretty great, yes? Can’t help you because someone else got to me first, and I just can’t cancel on them to help you.) I didn’t feel well (like anybody believed me – but I used it a LOT.) There was a crisis at work and I HAD to take care of that. (I wonder what my friends thought of the companies I worked for – clearly they were in crisis a LOT.) And one of my tried and true favorites: a friend of mine was in crisis and had asked me to come over. (Again, I come off sounding anything but selfish, right?)

Go ahead, ask me how often those people found out or figured out that I wasn’t being truthful with them. Ask me how that impacted those friendships. Ask me about the complicated stories I had to remember and maintain – lies, really – and how often I failed to keep them all juggled.

Maybe more to the point ask me how frustrated and angry I was at the people who were asking me for having the sheer audacity TO ask me. Yikes! And all of this because I didn’t feel safe simply saying “no, doesn’t work for me – love you, ask another day, but today, no, I’m not going to help you.”

Boundaries 102

But wait – the story gets better. As I found the tools to get under my what if thinking and challenge the assumptions that had been scaring me for two decades I also began to realize that I needed to start taking into account what I wanted (see my post HERE on this basic human need and right.)

Which meant that if I was really listening to ME then I had to also start RESPECTING me and my needs/wants. Guess what happened? I stalled, I found reasons to not say no, all the while getting more frustrated and more annoyed, both with myself and the people that were asking stuff of me.

Finally, driven by desperation, I started one day saying no. A friend really wanted me to help them move. (Let me tell you, I’ve done a LOT of time as a semi-pro mover for my friends. Sometimes it was great fun and it was something I wanted to do – but sometimes it was the last thing I wanted to do, I did it anyway and then bitterly resented the person I was helping…)

Heart in my hands, voice shaking, I said “uh, listen, I, uh, I don’t have the time to give away right now. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you move.” I waited for the upset, the shouting, the accusations of how bad a person I was, etc.

What I got, however, was “Oh, OK. No worries. I’ll find someone else.” I felt like I had just been let off with a not-guilty plea after murdering someone! 🙂

It wasn’t always that easy. People got upset with me too. And some of THAT was on me too. After all I had been the guy who always said yes, yes? They had counted on me to be the Yes Man again. THAT DIDN’T MEAN I HAD TO OBLIGE THEM.

I was in a real sense changing the rules on the people in my life. And that was MORE than OK. It was time for new rules – for how I managed my own time and energy. It was more than legal – it was vital to my health and the health of the relationships in my life. It took some practice. I wasn’t great at it for a while. I sometimes gave in to fear and said yes when I needed to say no.

Boundaries 101

This is an art, way more than a science, and we can only get better if we’re willing to practice.

It isn’t Just about Doing or Not Doing

And of course boundaries are not just about what we can DO. Boundaries are also about what we think, what matters to us, what our opinions are, etc. These are also places that healthy boundaries help us maintain good self-care.

Liberal? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Conservative? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Don’t like shrimp? Legal – totally legal. Hate shrimp? (Man, I HATE shrimp. It’s like serving erasers for dinner!) It’s legal to hate shrimp too. Want to be a professional Alpine Skier? Knock yourself out. Want to build a child-care center, or be an art critic, or get a 20-hour-a-week job because the kids are gone and you want to make some cash for YOU? Go for it.

The challenge with this is that almost everyone in our lives has THEIR opinion, expert as they are, about what you should think, want, feel or believe.  And while that’s nice it is still up to YOU, dear reader, to make your own evaluations, your own decisions about what you think, want, feel or believe.

Here’s some weird news: if what someone else thinks or feels or wants makes you upset guess what? You’re what iffing about their stuff. Same thing is true about other people’s reactions to you. Here’s some more weird news: just because other people don’t like what you think or believe or want or feel doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have those thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

I’m not saying that all thoughts, beliefs or feelings are equal! Far from it. The validity or accuracy of a thought or belief is very much something that can be weighed and measured and evaluated. But guess what? You STILL get to have it. You STILL get to decide what to do about it. And as far as feelings are concerned, well, NOBODY gets to decide how you feel. That doesn’t make all your (or my) feelings true or useful – but they are still things that belong to us, and we still get to have them.

Will people get upset with us for having thoughts, beliefs or feelings different from the ones they have? You already know the answer to that. Just look at Fox News, MSNBC or any of the daytime shows like Maury to see what happens when frightened people disagree. Ugh. Not useful.

Boundaries 103

Here’s an example: my partner loves to go to parties and gatherings of people he only barely knows, or doesn’t know at all. He’s got that never-met-a-stranger thing in his soul, and he’s great at meeting with and chatting people up. He loves it.

Me? Not so much. I can do it when necessary, and now and again I enjoy it, but I’m much more the hang-with-my-peeps kinda guy. My partner thinks I’m a crazy person for not wanting to meet lots of new people. I think he’s overextending himself and missing opportunities to get to know a few folks well.

Guess what? That’s what we think! Who says we have to agree? And more importantly we have the need to respect our own boundaries. He might change his mind one day. He might not. Same for me. But we each get to think what we think.

That doesn’t mean I can’t sometimes make an effort to change his mind. (I don’t when it comes to this topic, but there are so many other things he’s thinking wrong about I HAVE to try on others…) 🙂 Same thing for him with me. It’s utterly OK that we sometimes work to get people over to our point of view.

That doesn’t mean we have an obligation to take anyone else’s perspective! We can also choose to listen or not listen when they try to change our minds. NEVER listening probably isn’t useful, all the time. On the other hand you may decide that some people DO need to get tuned out, at least for a long, long time. That’s legal too.

Boundaries 104

Putting up fences – drawing healthy boundaries – will trouble some people. They get over it. That might mean they move on to other folks that don’t have healthy boundaries (adios, I say – better for them and for us if they make that choice.) They will more likely go hey, that’s cool, once they get over the news that you’re no longer a doormat.

Yes, but it’s SCARY to say no…

Sure it is. We learned to literally think we were at risk for injury when we first learned that we shouldn’t or couldn’t say no. Lots and lots of people have trouble with boundaries – either enforcing their own, respecting other people’s or both.

Maybe we’re afraid we’ll wind up alone if we say no, sorry, not going to do or think the thing that someone is asking of us. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll have to look after ourselves, take care of ourselves – and we’re afraid that we can’t. Maybe we’re STILL afraid, consciously or unconsciously, that we’ll be hurt, beat up or otherwise threatened with harm if we say no.

The real question is what do we need to do to respect ourselves, take care of ourselves? If, God forbid, we’re actually physically at risk, well, that’s one thing, and we need to think through and take steps to get clear of that context. But even THAT is an example of boundary-drawing. Nobody should have the right to physically abuse us, trap us, control us.

And that’s an interesting thing to extend to our personal boundaries. Because if we’re NOT at risk for physical injury then it’s time we started drawing the boundaries that work for us.

Some of that will be a negotiation process. Sometimes, because of how we live, who we live with, the obligations that we have taken on, etc., we may not always get to, 100% of the time, have the boundaries we’d like. That’s OK too, because we’re still the ones in the driver’s seat. And nobody says we can’t go back to the negotiation table and reopen discussions, yes?

You’ll feel MUCH Better – and you’ll BE Healthier too

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Let me close this discussion by recommending a brilliant book: Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. Don’t let the title stop you (in case you think it applies only to people who wrestle with co-dependency.) This is a book about drawing boundaries, big, medium and small. She’s a great, straight-ahead writer and she won’t pull any punches. It’s a great instruction manual for the understanding and practice of drawing healthy boundaries.

Expect this work to make you uncomfortable. Expect to find yourself reverting to old behaviors rather than holding these new boundaries you want to hold. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself mad, or frustrated, or just pissed off, and maybe not even being sure why in that moment. This is scratchy work – anxiety-creating, in a great way, work, for awhile.

This is a skill (just like overcoming anxiety is a set of skills) and you’ll come to be very, very glad you have it.

When we fight with anxiety in our lives the holidays can SUCK. (Can I get an “amen” for that?) We, chronic anxiety fighters who are already making ourselves crazy with the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect, meet our own impossible standards of performance AND keep the demons of our problems-made-to-crises at bay, can find the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas (here in the States – you folks in other countries have your own holiday pressures, no doubt) to be all but too much…

May I make a few recommendations to help make the holidays less torturous?

There is no Perfect Holiday

My sister (gifted, brilliant, funny, creative) told me years ago that one of the burdens she brought to the holidays was the notion that somehow she could, if she tried hard enough, summon a Christmas that resembled the old Norman Rockwell paintings from the last century.

You know Norman Rockwell? Look him up on the Net if you don’t. He crafted little paintings of Americana, idealized pictures of small-town life, that, while sweet and cute and fun, also were ONLY PICTURES. Families gathered around perfect Christmas trees, husbands carving perfect turkeys as adoring wives looked on, etc.

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Oh, and of course nobody ever fought, nobody was unhappy, the tree didn’t have dying branches, and the gifts were, of course, perfect…

Paintings are great. But they are rarely reflect reality. And in my sister’s case they modeled an impossible standard for what the holidays were supposed to be, at least for her. Worse, when she failed to achieve that Rockwellian standard of the holidays she blamed HERSELF.

No, the turkey wasn’t perfect. The house wasn’t free of strife. (Yes, other people stress over the holidays too.) The gifts were not the perfect gifts. And all of that is just NORMAL. Nothing is perfect, especially the holidays. They can be good. They can even be great. But when my sister set her sights on achieving the perfect holiday she only set herself up for failure – and anxiety.

She has, in recent years, begun to make the holidays a much more manageable, more human activity. In letting go of the perfect holiday she has begun to enjoy the holiday season MORE. Isn’t that wacky?

It’s Really just another Day

Don’t get me wrong. Thanksgiving and Christmas are wonderful ideas. I’m not saying forget these days or dismiss them out of hand. (Well, I’m not saying it YET.) I AM saying that at the end of the day, whatever day it is, it’s still just A DAY.

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Some of us learned (like my sister) to put terrible expectations on the holidays. In a sense we are setting ourselves up for failure – and the holidays up for failure.

My wise and intelligent partner Bob talks a lot about expectations – something he’s picked up in the last few years from his training as a marriage and family therapist. He has explained to me that so much of what we experience is really about the expectations we bring to that experience.

For instance: let’s say you had an ice-cream cone on a really hot day this past summer. It tasted like HEAVEN. Your eyes rolled back into your head and you fell to your knees in the sheer glorious moment of that first lick. (OK, maybe that didn’t happen to you – but it’s happened to me, or something very close to that. Yes, I like ice cream.)

With that experience as your measure you have another ice cream cone in, say September. You’re really expecting a first-class ice cream cone experience as you pay the guy at Baskin-Robbins or Coldstone and take that beautiful thing for yourself. You take a lick and – it’s just ice cream. Yummy. Nice. But not God’s Gift to ice cream. What happened? How could this ice cream be so utterly NOT what you wanted?

Well, dear friend, the problem isn’t the ice cream. The problem is the terrible burden you PUT on the ice cream. Same thing with the holidays. Maybe we can all use a little lowering of our expectations.

Which doesn’t mean it has to then be treated as crap! How about we start talking to ourselves about a good holiday? Let’s have a nice time? Let’s eat some decent food and see some friends and family? Let’s allow for people to be tired from travel, or stressed from work, and allow them (and ourselves) our human-ness? What do you say? 🙂

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Because in lowering those expectations you’re not trashing the holiday season. You are instead making it a much more HUMAN, real, actually-possible experience for you and the people around you. To adjust our expectations we of course have to get conscious of what they are in the first place. What are your expectations for the Christmas Season? What do you think you should be able to pull off? What should happen, according to you, between Thanksgiving and Christmas?

How should other people behave? How should YOU behave? How much stress are you putting on you and the season from your expectations? How could you do the holidays differently? Are you trying to measure up to other people’s expectations? What terrible thing would happen if you didn’t try so hard?

(And btw I know that some people will not like the statement that started this section “It’s really just another day.” Lots of people think that this season, and especially Christmas Day, are sacred days and are anything but just another ordinary day. I couldn’t agree more. But if THAT is what we are celebrating what’s up with all this stress, frustration, fear of failure and mad dashing around in crowded malls spending money we don’t have? Let’s be clear about the distinction between the actual meaning of the holiday vs. all the crap we’ve attached to it, yes?)

What do you REALLY want from this time of year?

And speaking of expectations, what the heck do YOU want from this holiday season? Let’s be honest. What works for YOU, when you’re not shooting for perfection? Would you like some downtime to just read some books, watch some sappy holiday movies and veg on the couch? Do you want to cut down your own tree, or maybe just be content with that artificial thing you can stand on the kitchen table?

How about you ask YOU what YOU actually want from this holiday season? And while you’re at it, maybe you could check and see what the spouse or the girlfriend or the parent or the kids actually, really need from this holiday?

There’s a quote from the Old Testament that I’ve always liked, from the book of Proverbs: “Better a dry crust of bread in silence than a house full of feasting with strife.” I wonder how many high-holiday-expectation souls would trade all the gifts and lights and feasts this time of year for a simple microwave meal and a chance to sit in front of the Hallmark Channel, or ESPN, or HBO, and just CHILL?

Maybe there’s room to lower the standard a little. Maybe there’s room to have some discussion with yourself (and maybe even the other people in your life that are also striving to summon a Dicken’s Christmas) and see what really works for you and them?

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See the method to my madness here? By having some dialogues with you and your significant people you might be able to get clear on expectations – and reset them to something more human.

And there’s one more thing you could do if you feel the need…

Some of us have been pretty beat up by the holidays and all this high expectation crap. I’m now speaking for myself, but I’ve got plenty of reports from other people at the damage they’ve taken from and at the holiday season. Ugh.

My holiday histories haven’t been the best for much of my life. I’ve worked on that, but some holiday times have just been an unnecessary drag. So I found myself thinking man, I just wish we could skip the holidays. It isn’t that I hate Christmas or have joined my local Scrooge Club, but I just decided I needed a break from all that holiday insanity.

So guess what? That’s exactly what I did. I decided that my friends and family could survive without a barrage of gifts. I decided that I could live without a Christmas tree, or lots of lights, or Christmas cards. (Need I explain the amount of stress I gave myself for years and years around getting the Christmas cards done on time?) I decided that, for a little while, I really would simply act as if Thanksgiving to Christmas wasn’t the most special time of the year, but just the end of the year –

And I did one more thing. I practiced BLOWING UP my expectations by treating this time of year as some quaint, foreign but not applicable to me festival, something to admire and respect from a distance, but since it wasn’t relevant to ME, not giving it much thought or energy.

“Isn’t that quaint” I’ve been saying to myself as I drive past the mall and see shoppers pouring in and out of the stores. “Those people are working on that holiday thing – isn’t that wacky?” I hear the same Christmas Carol I’ve heard in the supermarket for the last two weeks and I smile and shake my head – “there’s that holiday music those people always play this time of year…”

The weird (and cool) part to me is how well it’s worked. It seems to be one tool in the work of lowering expectations and resetting the bar to “human” when it comes to the Christmas Season. In fact the pressure seems to go away entirely with a little practice.

Family of four holding hands and walking on beach in North Carolina.

Family of four holding hands and walking on beach in North Carolina.

Maybe next Christmas I’ll try to bring back some lights around the outside of the house. Maybe next Christmas I’ll make some effort to have a holiday party, or put up a small tree. But for the moment treating the holidays as just another day sure feels better than the old insane, unrealistic pressure and stress that the holidays have meant to me (and to too many of us.)

Merry Christmas Mr. Scrooge!

Again, to be clear, I’m NOT saying we should all abandon Christmas celebrations or shout bah-humbug whenever we see Christmas carolers. 🙂 I am saying that we could have a much happier, healthier, less-stressful holiday season if we could make the holidays more human.

And don’t think I don’t know that even THINKING about modifying our Christmas/holidays stories and expectations doesn’t in itself conjure fear for many of us. Won’t we be a failure if we don’t STRIVE to create the perfect Christmas? Won’t our family and friends and utter strangers be upset and horrified and disappointed in us for not giving this our all? 🙂

Seriously? IT’S A HOLIDAY, not the Spanish Inquisition! Maybe some people will look down on you for not opening a vein for this mad experience we call the holiday season. Maybe you’ll have to take a little of your courage in your hands to do this work. But the payoffs can be wonderful – even life-giving.

I hope all of you, my excellent readers, make a holiday this year that works for YOU. It would be an excellent opportunity to practice self-care, one of the four foundational skills of mastering fear and anxiety in our lives. And I’d love to hear how you intend to make the holiday something you can enjoy more and stress about less if you’re willing to share that with me!

In the meantime, Merry Christmas! Make the season something you can live with!

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