Several posts ago I discussed why it’s a good idea to let go of self-blame. When I first became a mother I would go to bed each night rehearsing the day’s failures: all that I wish I had done differently. Especially when it came to discipline, I felt an abysmal failure and I constantly worried that something I was doing now would harm my child irreparably in the future. Three children later I have largely let go of those worries and I very rarely give myself over to a good session of self-flagellation or self-blame. I am now able to let it go.
I am a person who expects the best of myself. Anyone who knows me personally knows this about me. This approach got me an education and CV that many might envy. The one thing I haven’t had a lot of practise in is letting go of failures. I think this experience is common to many people. We want to do well and achieve so much. Very few of us feel comfortable saying “Oh well” or “better luck next time.” We tell our children that it’s not winning the game that matters, but just taking part, when really our society ensures that children learn that the real message is, “Success = winning.” Thus, the inability to say “Oh well” often manifests as self-blame.
Here are a few things that helped me:
I trained myself to recognise and name the positive. Spending a few minutes each evening to think about my day and to try to recognise things I had done well turned my usual end-of-day negativity on its head. I would try to find three things and say them out loud to my husband or write them down in a journal. It felt artificial and uncomfortable at first, but as time went on and I practised this further, it became second nature. If, like me, you don’t have much practise of letting go of things, it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be able to suddenly be an expert at doing it! That’s called setting yourself up for failure, and yet more self-flagellation. Baby steps, where we can practise being kind to ourselves and seeing ourselves with a compassionate gaze is far more fruitful than raising the bar artificially high. Three things, every night– sometimes I felt so low that it was a struggle to find anything to say and so I said, “I got out of bed this morning. I fed my baby. I made lunch.” It doesn’t have to be spectacular (“I found a cure for cancer!”), it just needs to be personal to you.
Another thing that helped me is watching my language. I realised that I spent a great deal of time using blame language, “Oh that was a stupid thing for me to do.” “I’m rubbish at that!” “That was my fault.” “It’s all your fault!” “Don’t blame me!” Again, it took practise and it’s still something that I work on. The things we say are so indicative of how we think and feel. I spent a lot of time blaming myself, and it was only when I heard my child say, “I’m no good at that!” did I realise the destructive nature of my own words and the example I was setting. I now practise re-imagining the situation, and either making statements of fact (i.e., what I can see, hear, smell, taste, etc.) or talking about my feelings.
Something that helps me to let go of self-blame, even now, is to imagine or visualise what someone who loves me would say. Let’s say I’ve just dropped the lasagne on the floor (not hypothetical!). I would probably say, “How stupid! I can’t believe I just did that! I ruined dinner; now what are we going to eat?” My husband would say, “Sh*t! Look at that mess. Don’t worry, let’s just have pizza.” He would also probably give me a hug. So when I’m feeling terrible about the day I’ve had with the children, I say to myself, “I know you’re having a bad day. Don’t worry. You are a great mother and your children are wonderful. Take it easy; tomorrow will be better.” Other people who love me are usually a lot easier on me than I am. Remembering what they might say or do can help to bring perspective when the proverbial lasagne hits the floor.
Slowly, all of this has led to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. In Yoga, we begin by working with the body and as our awareness becomes gradually more refined we begin to notice subtleties of the breath and the mind. In my life, I have noticed that practising the simple and concrete (saying three positive things about my day) has gradually evolved to a finer understanding of what it means to be human. Appreciating my humanity allows me to let go of self-blame. I can be compassionate toward myself because I know that I never will be perfect; I will always make mistakes. I can say, “Oops.” I can say, “Sorry.” And I can show my children that human beings forgive themselves and move on.
Being human means being imperfect, frail, vulnerable. We are not invincible, nor are we perfect. We think that success equals winning, when actually losing teaches us so much more about love, vulnerability and compassion than winning ever would.