This past week, I had a massive reminder of the importance of self-compassion.
I had a great morning, out and about doing errands. It was a beautiful day, I had the day off and I had a nice day planned. Then on the way home from the bank I made a mistake in traffic and narrowly avoided a collision. It was very scary. It was also stupid. It was something I would never do on purpose. It was the textbook definition of an accident, thankfully without an actual crash.
I am safe, but I was very shaken up and I was holding back tears all the way home, which thankfully wasn’t far at all. Do I regret it? Of course. Can any amount of wishing or hoping change it now? Nope. Sigh.
And here’s where things got really interesting for me. Once I got home I didn’t actually cry. I spent the next half hour or so mentally tearing strips off myself. I was mean. I was so cruel. I would never say anything like that to anybody else in a million years, let alone someone who was clearly in shock and needed a hug.
I pride myself on my driving. I’ve never had a fine or lost points or anything like that. The only collision I’ve ever been involved with was when I was parked and somebody ran into me, so I was not at fault. I consider myself a good, careful, safe driver. But today something in my brain clearly didn’t work like usual.
As a recovering perfectionist, mistakes like this are a field day for my super-ego or inner mean girl.
But thankfully I’ve learnt enough about myself, life and human psychology to know that beating myself up doesn’t help. I caught myself in the act of self-abuse and consciously redirected my thoughts towards self-compassion.
What would I say to a friend who had just made a silly, dangerous mistake and was clearly angry at themselves and in shock? I would comfort them. I would not tell them that what they did was ok — that’s not compassion that’s enabling. But I would tell them that THEY are ok, that they are human and that they are safe and loveable and enough.
So I said those things to myself. And it helped somewhat, but not entirely.
Then I realised what was still broiling underneath: shame.
Ding, ding, ding! That’s the sound of my brain figuring out something important.
Brene Brown is a shame researcher and in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” she talks about silence being the biggest breeder of shame.
So I told somebody. It was the one thing I didn’t want to do. I don’t want people to think of me as a dangerous driver. I don’t want people to extrapolate that if I’m a dangerous driver I’m therefore also incompetent in other areas of life. I didn’t want anybody else to know about this embarrassing mistake.
I started with my husband and my best friend. Then I reached out in an online community I’m in where the culture is one of support and love, not judgment and criticism. And now I’m posting this here, on my blog, for all the world to see (although I don’t think the whole world is actually reading).
I want to be clear: I’m not looking for appeasement for my actions. I made a mistake, it could have had devastating consequences and it was wrong. I am sorry and I am owning that.
Owning my actions, speaking honestly about them and admitting that I was wrong…What I am doing is diffusing the shame and self-hatred I felt initially. I am practising self-compassion.
Because here’s the thing about mistakes, especially big bad ones: we think that if we punish ourselves enough we will learn the lesson, that we won’t make the mistake again. But that’s neither helpful or even necessarily true.
For a start, I did NOT do this on purpose. So punishing myself is not really going to help because it wasn’t the kind of mistake where I didn’t know better and now I do so won’t do it again. It was an accident and I can’t guarantee I’ll never have another accident. I’ll do my absolute best, I will definitely be even more careful, but I’m a human and there are no guarantees of this kind in life.
But more importantly, pain isn’t the only way and definitely not the best way to learn a lesson. Staying in a place of shame and anger and self-hatred doesn’t actually do anything productive for me. We have this warped idea that has been conditioned into us that if we punish ourselves enough we can somehow “earn” atonement through our suffering. Then, someday, we will be able to feel good about ourselves again because we will have “earnt it”. Except, most of us make enough mistakes daily (little ones, for the most part) that keep us constantly in a cycle of mentally berating ourselves, that we never get to that far off time when we can allow ourselves to feel good enough again.
The only way to break that cycle is to decide not to perpetuate it, and choose self-compassion and self-forgiveness instead.
And later, gratitude. Gratitude that I am safe, gratitude that I have learned a valuable lesson, and gratitude that I am able to choose the path of self-compassion and self-forgiveness instead of self-flagellation.
Will you join me on the journey?
Gratitude + forgiveness = happiness