Learning to be Kind, to myself

Photo by Annie Spratt

Photo by Annie Spratt

My word for 2018 was "kindness." Before then, I'd never thought much about what it means to be kind to myself. Whenever I heard the words "self-care" or "self-compassion," I just thought of doing a face mask or treating myself to a new outfit - which just felt fleeting, and quite honestly, a little dumb (though I’ve learned there’s a much needed place for physical self-care). But the type of self-care I’m referring to here is internal self-care.

It’s something I never knew before seeing a therapist that I seriously needed to work on. I've always been extremely hard on myself - quick to condemn and shame myself when the to-do list doesn't get done or when I fall back into bad habits or make a mistake (again and again). I honestly didn't understand what self-love was until Renley was born. The way she looked up at me - eyes dazzling with adoration - was a way I realized I had never looked at myself.

When I asked my therapist what to do on the days when I felt too down to do anything, she asked me to become aware of how I was treating myself. She said I was probably beating myself up most on those days.

Almost a year ago, while I was looking for jobs, I had a networking call and from the other end of the phone this man asked me what kind of career I was looking for. I blanked, giving him an ambiguous answer about high-growth and collaboration and by the end of the call I was disappointed in how I responded to a question I felt like I should be able to answer. And then I heard the tiny whisper: "stupid." And then again, "you don't even know what you want to do with your life." And then again - chest tightening, "figure it out fast." And then finally, "failure." Before this moment, I had never noticed these words but when I felt my chest tightening and stress knotting in my stomach (I’ve recognized this is where I carry stress), I got curious as to what was happening.

It wasn't the voice I imagined it would be - coherent or devilish - it came in the form of tiny phrases that mocked the things I value most. It was a quiet whisper dripping with disgust...for myself. I immediately caught it and then I corrected it. I reminded myself of the mantra my therapist taught me and that I'd been repeating those days as I balanced new motherhood, work, job research, exercise and maintaining my sanity:

"You are a great mother. You have a beautiful daughter. You will succeed."

For the first time (maybe ever), I began treating myself the way I'd treat a friend. Instead of being angry with myself and letting it ruin my whole day, I forgave myself for my confusion and I went home and justified it in my journal:

You’re allowed to be confused about what you want to do. You don’t need to have all the answers. You’re going through a huge transition and you’re figuring it out. That’s why you have these calls. Ambiguity is okay.

Keep trying.

Somedays (really, many days), motherhood feels like an impossible feat. Life at large, even, feels like an impossible feat. These days I feel unmotivated, stuck, hungry for nothing. I feel hardened, stubborn and angry. On days like this my head feels clouded, my heart feels numb, and my exhaustion takes a complete hold over me. On these days, I try and muster the strength to do something vulnerable to overcome my hard frustration: I pray (even though I sometimes feel too angry to pray) and then I cry. Usually my anger stems from a place of pain that I can’t name. Usually the pain is telling me that I am not enough. Praying normally allows me to recenter myself, to find the core of why I’m hurting and then to cry when I find it, which is such a cleansing release.

Slowly over time, I started to recognize and then breathe out that chest tightening feeling when it comes. This often happens when I didn't get enough done (I recognized this as a trigger for, because I put so much personal emphasis on productivity), when stress is building, or when I’m feeling shame or guilt. I’ve begun to recognize and dismiss the ugly words I spoke to myself and every day I wrote down something I was grateful and proud of myself for - slowly shifting my mindset to acceptance and gratitude for what is not what was or could have been. Even more importantly, as I hold Renley and she loves me simply for existing, I’ve realized that's how God looks at and loves me. He loves me despite my repetitive mistakes and my flaws. And He doesn't give a rat's butt about my to do list. After Renley was born, I realized my purpose was simply to love (and that started from within). Parent or not, it's the reason we all exist.

We're so hard on ourselves. I haven't completely figured out why. Perhaps we know ourselves most intimately - our strengths, our weaknesses, how much we're capable of - and we hold ourselves to the standard of our potential, all the while forgetting our flawed humanity. What I figured out over the course of that year, making an active effort to be kinder to myself (and allowing myself to hurt, to be stagnant and to be in limbo), is that kindness towards others starts on the inside with ourselves, and so does joy.

Alexa Hyman