The Self-Compassionate Way Out of Your Shame-Based Labels
There is a sad, funny scene near the beginning of the 1996 romantic comedy called The Truth About Cats and Dogs in which the gorgeous aspiring actress played by Uma Thurman is publicly berated by her boyfriend for being fat and stupid and a bitch and the quick-witted, supposedly not-so-good-looking neighbor played by Janeane Garofalo interrupts and says something like, "I'm confused. I don't know you, but I heard you talking to a fat bitch so I thought you were talking to me." That patently ridiculous statement totally flummoxed the man and interrupted the pattern of abuse he was spewing, while forging a bond between the women who both suffered low self-esteem for different reasons. It was funny because we already know Ms. Garofalo's character is smart, successful, and talented but it is sad because we also know that she sees herself as hopelessly unattractive. She admires the beauty of her neighbor without seeing any of the neighbor's flaws, only her own.
It is not easy to become a person who has an objective view of one's own character and abilities when you have a shame-based self-image. In my last blog entry I referred to a client who was holding herself back from achievements because she did not believe she could succeed. We were working together to help her stop labeling herself so negatively, yet she felt mired in the negative image of herself. I knew that any standard cognitive therapy change in self-talk would not be enough to really undo that labeling of herself. I outlined for her some steps that I thought would help her to become more compassionate to herself and begin the reversal of her negative labeling by simply promoting the positive connection to herself and to others.
I suggested to my client a path that you can also follow to increase your self-compassion, move toward greater objectivity about yourself and decrease your negative labels of yourself. When practitioners of eastern philosophy and meditation brought mindfulness to our western culture they found that many of us were reluctant to practice the simple loving-kindness meditation that develops compassion for the self—the basis for compassion for others. What they found was that it was easier to start with meditations for compassion for others and build into awareness of compassion for the self.
Here is how we started toward self-compassion in the face of shame-based negative self-image:
1. Using a version of the loving kindness meditation, begin with just a brief version of it. For one week, focus on someone you like very much or someone you wish well. Several times a day, repeat to yourself the following sentences three times, while clearly visualizing that person in your mind. (This is but one version of loving-kindness meditation. You may use any version of it you like. You will find some on Youtube, in Barbara Fredrickson's Love 2.0, and in Kristin Neff's Self-Compassion.) "May you be happy." "May you be well." "May you be filled with kindness and peace."
2. The next week, continue that practice, but now add in one more person—someone for whom you have some fondness but with whom you may have some conflict or irritation. Visualize that person while you repeat the loving-kindness meditation for him or her as well.
3. The next week, continue with the two persons but now add someone for whom you have no fondness or whom you regard as disagreeable and direct the loving-kindness meditation toward that person as well.
4. Finally, add yourself into the meditation. Continue with those you have imagined up until now, but start with yourself and end with yourself. Explore how this feels to you to have positive wishes for your own well-being that are not pushed out by negative labels. Do this meditation daily at least once. As you begin the loving-kindness toward yourself, you will find it does not seem so impossible to loosen up on the self-labeling. But there are times that self-compassion can't shift you from feeling regret about the past. In my next blog post I will discuss self-forgiveness.