Like any young child I eagerly awaited the arrival of my birthday and the attendant party. This was the era when birthday parties were held at home and long suffering mothers organised party games and birthday teas. After my older brother’s seventh birthday when the boys attacked the cake by bombarding it with cocktail sticks blown through drink straws, my mother swore never to hold another boy’s party so I was lucky to be a girl. However, I did not consider myself lucky when my mother – a stickler for manners – refused to allow me to win at party games.
“But it’s not fair!” I protested, “I’m the birthday girl and I should win!”
“Life isn’t fair” my mother retorted, dispensing both the prizes and a lesson I would have done well to learn at that stage of my life.
In fact it took me many years, a counselling course, and therapy, to realise the value of what my mother had said. For far too long I held onto the notion that life should be perfect and felt victimised when it wasn’t.
Do you have expectations of life, of yourself, and of others?
How do these expectations affect you?
This week I’ve been listening to a talk by Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion and a leading expert in the subject. She said that self-compassion acknowledges the fact that both life, and us, as humans, are imperfect.
However when we fail or make mistakes, she suggests that there can be an implicit, unconscious assumption that this shouldn’t be happening, that things aren’t supposed to be this way. We expect perfection of ourselves and of our lives.
It is within this expectation of perfection that our suffering lies. We can experience disappointment. We can be angry with ourselves. We can reject ourselves in disgust. We can feel such a sense of shame or embarrassment that we feel separate from others. In the pain of isolation we forget that our mistakes are what makes us members of the human race.
Being kind to ourselves at times like this can be very difficult. We can feel a deep sense of unworthiness. The suggestion of self-compassion feels like anathema: we do not deserve it.
When I’m working with clients in this area I find it helps to look at the wider context of their lives. What brought them to this point? What brought them to this decision?
Imagine approaching a dog that is snarling at you, baring its teeth, generally being very unfriendly. As you come closer you see that it is stuck in a trap and your feelings of fear and disgust turn to empathy and sorrow as you realise it is in pain. You understand the dog’s suffering.
This is the context of our lives. We do not ask to be born into our circumstances, into our lives, into the unique experience of our bodies and minds. We start life as helpless babies and gradually develop into people with all sorts of influences that make us who we are. We are caught in a trap of our own suffering.
Do we deserve punishment?
What would we say to a friend who’d made a mistake?
If we would not punish a friend, why do we punish ourselves?
It is often because we feel such a depth of sorrow at our behaviour. Yet it is this sorrow that is our saving grace. By connecting with the sorrow we connect with that part of our self that desires deep connection with others. Our sorrow at our inability to do so marks us out as truly human.
I speak more about breaking down the barriers to self-compassion in my video this week. For regular updates please subscribe to the email list on my website.