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The Power of Self-Encouragement

Using self-compassion to help achieve your goals

123RF Stock Photo
Source: 123RF Stock Photo

If everyone received the encouragement they need to grow, the genius in most everyone would blossom and the world would produce abundance beyond our wildest dreams.

Sidney Madwed

We all have goals and dreams. At this time of the year we often examine our lives and assess our progress toward these goals. And we often feel disappointed and become critical of ourselves when we realize we haven’t reached the goals we set for the past year. This article is about how to encourage yourself to reach your goals and dreams for the coming year using self-compassion as your motivator.

Whether your goal is to stop letting people walk all over you, stop being abusive, get the courage and strength to leave an abusive relationship, stop drinking, taking drugs or end another kind of addiction, stop other self-destructive or self-defeating behavior, or simply become the best version of yourself you can be, self-encouragement can help you accomplish your goal.

In my book, It Wasn't Your Fault, Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion, I outlined 5 components of Self-Compassion: self-understanding, self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, self-kindness and self-encouragement. Self-encouragement is not only an important step itself, but it underscores and strengthens each of the other components of self-compassion. Without self-encouragement, you will tend to slip back into your old habits of self-blaming and self-criticizing instead of using self-compassion to motivate you to continue on your healing journey.

If you were lucky, you may have met one or two people as you were growing up who encouraged you—a teacher, a coach, a grandparent. Others of you may have only had people around you who tore you down and discouraged you. Unfortunately, the effect of that criticism or discouragement may have been mild compared to what goes on inside your own head. For that reason, in this article we will not only focus on self-encouragement but continue focusing on eliminating the self-critical voices in your head, the voices that continue to tell you that there is something wrong with you, that you aren’t as good as everyone else, the voices that tell you can’t accomplish what you set out to do and that you don’t deserve good things.

How your shame has been a disability

As much as we all have dreams, we also have regrets—things we wish we would have done, things we wish we hadn’t done. One of the things I regret is never learning to surf.

I didn’t learn to surf because I was afraid. I have never felt that comfortable in my body, have always felt awkward. I’ve had problems with my weight all my life and physical education in school was a source of deep shame for me. So even though I can’t surf, I have taken to going down to the ocean almost every day to watch the surfers. I get a vicarious thrill from watching them glide across the waves.

One day I parked my car at my usual place—a parking lot overlooking the beach—ready to watch the surfers and write in my journal. Right in front of and just below me I immediately saw a man sitting on the beach taking off his wet suit, a surfboard by his side. I noticed right away that his legs did not move—they seemed to be paralyzed. I marveled at how he could have maneuvered his surfboard out into the ocean and wished I had been there earlier to see how he used his board. I deeply admired this man’s courage and determination.

I looked around to see if he had a wheelchair nearby and if there might not be an attendant with him. I spotted the wheelchair, perhaps twenty feet away—but no attendant in sight. The man continued to work on his wet suit and I imagined him having to crawl to get to his wheelchair if no attendant appeared. All of a sudden, a young man ran down the rocks from the parking lot and asked the man if he needed help. I saw the surfer motion up to the parking lot and figured out that he was indicating where the young man could take his surfboard. Then the young man went over to the wheelchair and pushed it toward the surfer. The surfer maneuvered himself into his chair and the young man picked up the surfboard and climbed the rocks to the parking lot.

Then ever so slowly, I watched as the surfer pushed himself in his wheelchair through the sand. He had a fairly long way to go, since the beach was quite wide. He just kept pushing himself through the sand, stopping periodically to rest. I didn’t notice anyone stopping to help him. I looked away to watch the other surfers and when I looked back I noticed he had made his way to the bottom of a sandy embankment. I wondered again if an attendant was going to meet him and help him up the hill to another parking lot. The man stopped there for quite a while and I figured he must be resting from his long trek through the sand. Just as suddenly as the first young man appeared, a second man approached the surfer and began to help push his chair up the hill. At first, they were having quite a lot of problems, so the man turned the chair around and began to pull the chair up the hill. That worked for a while but as they proceeded up the hill that maneuver stopped working, so he once again turned the chair around and started pushing. The surfer started using his arms to help push himself along but the hill proved to be too steep. Then a young woman came along and all three of them managed to slowly make it up the hill. I felt so triumphant as I saw them reach the top.

This entire scene moved me deeply. I will tell you why in a few minutes. But before I do I want to ask you, how did you feel as you read about the surfer?

* Did it make you feel guilty because you have two good legs but don’t appreciate them enough?

* Did it make you feel guilty because you don’t try harder to reach your goals?

* Were you moved by the surfer’s courage and determination, so much that it inspired you to work harder to reach your goals?

The way you responded tells you a lot about yourself. If the story made you feel guilty it is because you are being self-critical. You used this story to provide you with further evidence of how lazy or inadequate or unappreciative you are. Or, you felt guilty because you compared yourself with the surfer. Your thinking might have been something like this: “Here was someone who continued trying to reach his goal in spite of his obvious disability and yet I have given up on my goals and I don’t even have a good reason.”

If you didn’t feel guilty but instead felt moved and inspired by the surfer, you are on the right track. Self-encouragement is all about courage and determination. While it is great to be inspired by the courage and determination of other people who have overcome disabilities—one of the goals of this article is for you to become inspired by your own courage and determination.

Of course, we don’t know the surfer’s story. We don’t know if he had been disabled all his life and had painstakingly learned how to surf in spite of his disability, or whether he had been a surfer who had a tragic accident. We don’t know if he had a loving family who supported him emotionally and gave him the strength and courage and determination to overcome his disability in order to reach his dream, or if he had triumphed in spite of a neglectful or abusive childhood, as so many of you reading this article have done. What we do know is this man really wanted to surf and unlike me, he wanted to surf so much that he overcame his disability to do it.

Make no mistake about it, the abuse you suffered as a child and the shame you have been carrying around because of it, have caused you to have a disability, just as the surfer does. This is no exaggeration. And it is not intended to minimize the difficulties the surfer has to endure each day of his life. Your shame has blinded you to your good qualities and caused you to view the world in a distorted way, as surely as if you had been physically blinded. Your shame prevented you from hearing the positive, kind things that people who cared about you told you, as surely as if you were hard of hearing. And your shame crippled you and prevented you from reaching your full physical and emotional potential as much as any physical handicap would have.

Life without your handicap

Unlike people who have physical disabilities they cannot change, there is real hope for you in terms of minimizing or even eliminating the effects of the emotional handicaps those of you who were abused in childhood have suffered with all your life. As you work toward diminishing your shame, you have the opportunity to see what life could have been like without your handicaps. It’s not as if you can go back and erase your childhood and start over—the abuse has left scars that may never heal. But without the shame attached to the abuse you can now see more clearly, hear more clearly and move your body more freely. Now nothing can hold you back but habit and perhaps the fear of your newfound freedom.

I didn’t tell you the story of the surfer to make you feel guilty or ashamed because you have allowed your disability to stop you from doing the things you wanted to do. That isn’t the point. Neither is it to make you feel badly because you don’t feel grateful that you have legs that work. I told you the story because it symbolizes how difficult your struggle has been and how much you have accomplished in spite of your handicaps.

Think of all the negative messages you heard and all the negative messages you took on due to your shame. Now think of all the things you have accomplished in your life in spite of the shame you carried, in spite of the critical voices in your head, in spite of the fact that you were raised to believe you couldn’t accomplish what you wanted.

Now imagine that all this shame and all these negative messages as a giant hump on your back. I want you to really see and feel that hump. Feel how much more difficult it has been to navigate your life carrying around that extra weight on your back. Think of how that extra weight drained you of energy and made it difficult to do many physical tasks. Think of how awkward you have felt with that hump, how much it has gotten in your way of doing even the easiest things. Now think about how embarrassed you have been with that hump on your back—how you have imagined that people were staring at you and making fun of you because of it. Think of how often you stayed home and isolated yourself rather than venturing out and risking people’s stares. That hump is your shame, slowing you down, making your life difficult, causing you to feel awkward and different and unacceptable.

Now imagine how much better you will feel with that hump off your back. Notice how much lighter you feel, how much freer you feel to move around, how much you blend in with everyone else—no need to fear that others will stare at you or judge you. This is hopefully where you can get by continuing to work on your shame. You will no longer feel weighed down with shame, no longer made to feel different or disgusting. You will no longer have to hide. You don’t need to continue isolating yourself from others. You can go out into the sunshine with your head held high.

Unfortunately, since you have had this hump on your back for so long, you may forget that you no longer have it. You may still act like it is still there. And so you will need constant reminders that it is gone. You will need encouragement to break old habits such as isolating yourself, assuming that others are being critical, and telling yourself you can’t do something. This is what self-encouragement is about.

Self-encouragement is about building yourself up instead of tearing yourself down. It is like being a loving parent to yourself, a parent who sees her child’s potential and wants to nurture it, a parent who feels proud of her child when he achieves his goals instead of feeling envy or resentment because she never achieved her own.. Self-encouragement is believing in yourself and in your ability to overcome your limitations and handicaps. Self-encouragement is focusing on your strengths, positive attributes and skills instead of your weaknesses and limitations. Self-encouragement involves making sure that you surround yourself with people who will encourage you instead of finding fault—people who aren’t threatened by your successes. And self-encouragement is focusing on what you have accomplished instead of what you haven’t. I will provide more information on how to practice self-encouragement in a forth-coming article.