I recently took Session 1 of Write into Light, an amazing teleclass by Martha Beck (Session 2 starts June 27; check it out here). In the second call, she was outlining a writing exercise where we visualize our home and pick our least favorite spot, then see what it has to tell us. She did the exercise herself as she was describing it; she picked her master bedroom closet because it was filled with stuff she didn’t know what to do with. She described it as cluttered and disorganized, then asked what its message was for her.
In the pause before she conveyed the message, I was anticipating something like “you have too much useless junk in your life and you need to clear it out”—something that would point out a problem and how she should fix it. But what she actually said flabbergasted me. She said, in the softest, kindest voice: “Oh, go easy on yourself, please. Let the clutter be today … Everybody’s got clutter, sweetheart. Let it go.”
I sat there with my mouth open, astonished. A message of pure compassion? It was the exact opposite of what I expected. We’re always told clutter is bad and we should clear it, and yet here was this world-famous life coach saying it was OK—because she was speaking from love. And love never criticizes. Real love is unconditional; you are loved no matter what. No. Matter. What.
How often do we truly experience that? How often are we able to truly give that? It’s extraordinarily hard to practice—but it’s essential that we learn how. We can’t possibly experience any kind of lasting happiness or joy if we don’t give ourselves a break. And we can’t offer others unconditional love if we don’t give it to ourselves first.
At the root of unconditional love is compassion. Understand, and forgive, like Martha Beck’s closet. “It’s OK, sweetheart. Everyone has clutter.” Not, “You are so lazy, why haven’t you cleaned me up already? What a loser. You can’t even keep this tiny space straight; how will you ever be a success?” No. Acceptance and love. Try alternating those statements to yourself—first the kind one, then the negative one. Isn’t it incredible how different they make you feel? An imaginary statement from a room can make you feel loved or ashamed.
If you are gentle and compassionate with yourself, it completely changes everything. It feels like sinking into a bubble bath of peace. Imagine being as kind to yourself as you’d be to your dearest friend. When our best friend screws up, we’re always quick to tell her it’s OK. But when we screw up, oh boy! Bring on the banshees!
Most of us have that voice in our head that criticizes almost everything we do and constantly judges situations. Often, it’s not even our own voice, but one we absorbed from a parent or teacher. We don’t even notice most of the time, but it’s always carping at us. Never satisfied, always complaining. Start listening; it goes on and on. How can we expect to feel good with that constant barrage of criticism?
I recently began re-reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron (an excellent book which I highly recommend), and one of the first activities is to write a positive statement about yourself several times (like “I am genuinely talented”) and then note all the criticisms and objections that surface in your head. She calls those blurts, and she recommends writing them down, then reframing them as positive affirmations. This was so difficult for me. I felt silly saying nice things about myself, but I had felt totally normal saying mean things! That is messed up. But I think that’s how most of us are. Cameron points out that this inner critic is precisely why so many people don’t pursue their dreams. They self-sabotage before they even start. It is essential to quiet that inner judge if we want to accomplish anything, and I think it’s necessary in order to find true joy.
It’s important to realize that the critic inside you is not you. It is a separate voice that you can politely—or not so politely—tell to shut up. You can even give it a name, like Mr. Judgypants or Bossy Bee, to help you take it a little less seriously. When Bossy Bee starts bitching, say, “Hey, Bossy Bee. I know you want to help, but I’ve got this. Goodbye now.” (Or “Buzz off,” lol.)
When you screw up, instead of letting Bossy Bee berate you, consider what love would say. I don’t know, maybe give love a name too. Lucy Lovebug? Love understands, love accepts, love encourages. Lucy Lovebug would say, “It’s OK sweetheart; I’m here for you no matter what.” Treat yourself like you would a wounded child. Because that’s what we all are inside, really. Even those with “good” childhoods picked up some scars along the way. We need comfort and cuddling, not criticism and cruelty. We need forgiveness and kisses and treats.
A simple way to get into that mindset is lovingkindess meditation. Close your eyes and silently say, “May I be well. May I be loved. May I be free from all suffering. (Or, May I be filled with peace.)” Repeat three times (or as much as you need). That’s it! If you’re like me, even doing this will make you uncomfortable at first; but try doing it every day, maybe first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Over time, it will help you be more gentle and loving with yourself—and others.
We are not perfect. No one is. I repeat—no one is perfect, no matter how they seem from the outside. Everybody messes up. That’s part of being human. And when we mess up, compassion feels a lot better than anger, and helps us recover better too.
The next time you make a mistake, laugh. Feel solidarity with the billions of other people who are probably making a mistake at that exact same moment. No judgment, no self-flagellation. Look for the positive: Well, I wrecked the car, but no one got hurt. If I hadn’t gotten lost, I would never have met my new best friend. Sometimes what looks like a disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Give yourself a break. I will be right there with you, trying to remember to tell my Bossy Bee to buzz off and tune into Lucy Lovebug instead.
*For another marvelous approach to taking care of yourself, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s June Inspiration column in “O” magazine.