My Long Journey to Self-Compassion

I used to be an expert in beating myself up.  I could find fault in pretty much anything that I did.  I was a perfectionist and not in a good way.  Some people who are perfectionistic are realistic about their goals and forgiving of their mistakes.  I had idealistic goals that were out of touch with reality and felt embarrassment, guilt, and shame whenever I was unable to achieve them. 

It is not surprising that I became a perfectionist.  As a highly sensitive person, I reacted intensely to normal corrective feedback.  I can remember the sinking feeling that I experienced when my second grade teacher told me that I got an answer wrong.  My nervous system is wired to cause me to react with intense emotion to many things.  Without much provocation, I easily experienced a wide variety of emotions including anxiety, sadness, guilt, and shame. 

The Perfect Storm

In addition to my sensitivity, I had some difficult relationships in childhood.  My emotional needs weren’t met and I was bullied throughout elementary and middle school.  For a highly sensitive person, those experiences created the perfect storm. Children try to make sense of their world and I concluded that I was worthless and unlovable.  I saw other people having a much easier time with life and relationships so I assumed that there must be something wrong with me.  I developed perfectionism as a coping mechanism.  If I could be perfect, I could get someone to love me.  Of course, my approach was doomed to fail. 

I eventually decided that the best way to cope was to withdraw from people.  I still interacted with people when someone initiated conversation with me, but I definitely wasn't going to let anyone know my deepest thoughts and feelings.  I constantly tried to anticipate what someone wanted or expected from me and tried to be who I thought they wanted me to be.  It was exhausting.  I had no idea who I really was.

A Light Emerges

During high school, I got my first part time job.  I was surprised to see that my co-workers didn’t treat me like my peers at school.  They didn’t expect me to be disengaged from them and so they made more efforts to talk to me.  It was the first time that I realized that I might not be who I thought I was.  My withdrawal from my peers had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I didn’t realize how much I was telling people to leave me alone by my aloof behavior.    

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I started to make real progress in overcoming my perfectionistic tendencies.  It was a very slow process.  I realized how much I was maintaining my negative perceptions of myself through my thoughts and actions, but I was terrified to make myself vulnerable again.  At first, I took very small and calculated risks, which limited my progress.  I would often become frustrated and give up for long periods of time.  I doubted that I would ever have the kind of life that I wanted for myself. 

I Am Not Alone in My Imperfection

I kept working on my perfectionistic tendencies sporadically.  In my early career, I shared my struggles with a colleague who said to me, “The only problem that you have, is that you think you have a problem.”  His words affected me deeply.  I had forgotten that my self-perceptions might not be real.  By then, I had overcome my fears of rejection enough to have many deep connections with others.  Through those connections, I had learned that I am not alone in having flaws and imperfections.  I didn't expect anyone else to be perfect, so why should I hold myself to such a harsh standard

The process of learning to treat myself with love and compassion was not an easy one.  Criticizing myself and feeling ashamed had become my natural response.  There is comfort in familiarity.  It felt safer to stay the same because I knew what to expect and how to cope with it.  I was so frustrated by my circumstances that taking the risk to change became the lesser of the evils.  Anything would have been better than the misery and loneliness that I felt.

Letting Go of Who I Thought I Was

It was crucial for me to remember that my perceptions of myself were habits that developed from my sensitive personality and difficult experiences.  The more that I was able to recognize that my perceptions were not always accurate, the easier it was to be open to alternative viewpoints

Three Steps Forward, Two or Five Steps Backward

It would have been nice if change could have proceeded in a linear fashion, but old habits die hard.  When the risks that I took paid off, I was encouraged and motivated to continue.  It was much harder to keep going when I made a mistake or was rejected.  I easily returned to self-critical thinking.  It is never too late to turn things around.  No matter how long I rehearsed my old way of thinking, it was always helpful to replace those thoughts with more compassionate self-talk when I became aware of what I was doing. 

I’ve learned the same lesson many times.  Sometimes the lesson re-emerged in a new situation and other times I learned the lesson on a deeper level or with greater nuance.  I have developed a sense of humor about the process.  I have realized that change happens through trial and error learning.  No matter how much advice or advanced research you have, you can’t skip over the process of learning through your mistakes.  Now, I embrace my mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. 

The process of growth is never-ending.  I will never be finished evolving so I've decided to love myself now, just as I am.  I used to worry that if I was more compassionate with myself, I would lose motivation to change.  I have found just the opposite to be true.  The more forgiving I am of myself and my mistakes, the easier it feels to take risks.  My entire sense of self is no longer on the line every time I try something new. 

Focus on What You Can Control

There are certain aspects of life that are out of our control including the fact that some things you only learn through experience.  The good news is that we always have some control over our reactions and perceptions.  After our initial habitual response, we can take control to create the response that we want to have.  Once we are aware of what we are doing, it comes down to simple choices.  Is this the way that I want to feel about myself? Is this what I want to believe about myself?  If the answer is no, choose something different.  I know that this sounds too simple and easy to work.  It is and it isn’t.  The process works if you practice it.  Every time that you practice counts, even if you mess up or give up for a while. 

Believe that Your Experience of Life Can Change

Our greatest limitation is our own belief that we can’t change.  If you think can’t, you won’t.  Not because it’s impossible, but because you won’t even try.  I can’t control what someone thinks about me (and I no longer want to try), but I can control what I think about me.  I choose to love myself.  If you have a choice between judging yourself harshly and feeling chronically dissatisfied or loving yourself flaws and all and finding peace, why would you choose anything but love?  I also choose to treat others with the same love and compassion that I give to myself.  Once you accept your own flaws and imperfections as part of the beauty of who you are, it is much easier to have patience and compassion for others.  We are all works of art in progress. 

Obviously, I’m still not perfect, but I no longer feel the need to be.  There’s so much less to worry about when you don’t feel like you need to fix something about who you are.  I try to celebrate every moment from my biggest mistakes to my greatest accomplishments.  I’m grateful to be experiencing this beautiful and unpredictable thing called life.  For a long time, I truly believed that my ability to be happy and enjoy life was limited.  I am pleased to say that I have found more peace and joy than I thought possible.  I wish you the same. 

Suzanne Meunier

You can learn more about the strategies that I used to transform myself by checking out my series:  Be The Love: Overcoming the Barriers to Loving Ourselves.