“If war is holy and sex is obscene,
we’ve got it twisted in this lucid dream” -Alicia Keys on “Holy War”
– 1 –
It’s easy to be compassionate when a loved one is going through a tough time. Without thinking, you offer warmth, empathy, patience, and playfulness. You encourage her to take a bit of time off, relax, breathe, and go easy on herself.
If you’re like most people though, when you’re the one struggling, your actions are different.
You beat yourself up. You accuse yourself of being lazy, stupid, disorganized and incompetent. You’re angry and disappointed in yourself. You compare yourself to everyone else in the world, and you can’t help but notice how poorly you’re doing.
Instead of extending the grace and compassion that you effortlessly give to others, you’re merciless with yourself.
Of course, you’re not unique. We all do this.
The question is, why are we so much harder on ourselves than we’d ever be on a friend?
– 2 –
In the modern world, we are constantly cut open by messages saying we aren’t attractive, successful, efficient, healthy, or happy enough. We’re told that if we buy some widget, attend a training, go to a meditation retreat, do a cleanse, lose some weight, or whatever, then maybe – just maybe – we’ll be worthy and ok.
When that doesn’t work, we turn to personal development, which – instead of teaching us to accept ourselves for who we are – nudges us towards other people’s definitions of success, happiness, and contentment.
Most of us have been convinced that unless we are multi-millionaires with the body of a Greek God or Goddess, the sex life of a porn star, the meditation practice of a monk, and a rom-com worthy relationship, there’s something wrong with us. I fall for this shit all the time.
But of course, those are just the obvious insecurities. There are more subtle ways in which we’ve been made to feel flawed without even realizing it.
– 3 –
It may seem like I’m going out on a limb here, but bear with me for a moment.
Imagine what would happen if you stripped off your clothing and walked down a crowded street.
Even if you’re wildly attractive with great hygiene, you’d quickly get arrested for “indecent exposure.”
I know, you’re thinking, “Yeah, duh, that’s the law,” but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
We have literally created a world where your naked body is considered “indecent.”
You – the real you, the one who is vulnerable, raw, undisguised, and unabashed – is considered unfit in the eyes of the law.1
That’s really, really fucked up.
– 4 –
Of course, it’s not just our bodies that are considered obscene.
Our minds are too. We’ve all secretly:
- Wished suffering upon our enemies
- Been attracted to people besides our monogamous partner
- Contemplated whether or not we could get away with lying, cheating, or stealing
- Felt envious of someone else’s (ostensible) success and happiness
- …And a million other “horrible” things
In reality, most of us experience far darker thoughts and fantasies than anything I’ve written here.
Yet if anyone explicitly expressed these thoughts – even with the disclaimer that you’d never act on them – you would be reprimanded, shunned, or deemed unstable.
So we try to pretend that our minds don’t have dark corners. On the rare occasions that someone admits that her inner life is sometimes grim, we tend to get uncomfortable and change the subject instead of opening up and quietly saying, “Yeah. Me too.”
– 5 –
Do you see what happened here? We’ve created a society that implicitly and explicitly discourages us from being who we truly are. Neither our bodies nor our minds are allowed to be naked without serious repercussions.
So we learn to suppress huge parts of ourselves. We water down our opinions, hide our darkness, and fight against our urges – even when they wouldn’t harm anyone. We become strategic in what we communicate and how we behave.
The more we hold ourselves back (a necessity if we are ever to fit in) the more we dull ourselves. You can’t close yourself to being hated without also closing yourself to being loved. You can’t ignore the parts of you that are dark, without also drowning out the parts of you that are light.
– 6 –
Because of all of this, most people end up living muted lives. We trade most of our time for money, and even then, the money doesn’t go as far as we’d hoped. We avoid having hard conversations and pretend that problems don’t exist.
Slowly but surely, we suffocate ourselves by adhering to the norms forced upon us.
We toy with the idea of leaving the beaten path, but are forced to admit that it’s risky. If you start a business, you must first accept that you could lose everything you have. If you travel for six months instead of climbing the corporate ladder, people will tell you you’re playing Russian roulette with your career. If you fight for the causes you believe in, people will tell you you’re wasting your time
And of course, each of us is dealing with more pain, suffering, and anxiety than we admit. For many, the suffering is so intense that they use television, drugs, alcohol, the internet, or other distractions to put themselves into a low-level trance just to get by.
– 7 –
Consequently, extending compassion to yourself is far harder than it should be. The world constantly makes you feel flawed and inadequate, and sometimes, you can’t help but believe that you are.
Fortunately, there is a path forward, but it’s tricky. It takes courage and a clear head. You must believe that you are sane and that the world you live in is insane.
– 8 –
To start this process, do your best to laugh at all of the insanity around you.
I mean, think about it.
We’re all just running around like chickens with our heads cut off, discussing sports scores and stock market trends, draping ourselves in status symbols, babbling about work, entrepreneurship and grad school, trying to accumulate more and more, and gluing ourselves to screens and shitty jobs, while holding in our farts until no one’s around.
If you’d just pause and catch your breath for a moment, you’d notice something incredible: you’re pretty alright just as you are. In your own way, you’re beautiful. You’ve been able to handle everything life has thrown at you so far, and you’ll continue to be able to do so in the future. Besides, even if this moment is shitty, there’s always hope the for the next. In fact, if you work a bit to improve this moment (and that includes taking a nap!), the next one will follow along nicely.
– 9 –
Once you’re able to see the absurdity of the world we live in, it becomes easier to let go and be gentle with yourself.
Work to accept yourself for who you are, instead of beating yourself up for who you wish you were. In most cases, the person you wish you were has been superimposed on you by the outside world anyways.
Remember that being a human can be pretty fucking hard sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with you.
If you’re having trouble extending compassion to yourself, try this: think about how you would treat a friend who was in your exact position. If you notice that you’d be more compassionate to your friend than you are to yourself, do your best to transfer some of that compassion over to you. You deserve it.
– 10 –
From there, start accepting others as they are instead of trying to shape them into the people you wish they were. Love them when they’re being messy, chaotic, and annoying.
The more you accept the humanity in others, the more you’ll accept the humanity in yourself.