How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

A major eye-opener for me over these last few weeks that I have been doing my “emotional work” is the fact that I don’t love myself enough. It’s an odd thing to say, when you think about it. I do think I love myself, or otherwise I wouldn’t be so scared of dying. But it’s true that I am not kind enough to myself. I am not kind to myself the way that I am kind to others.

This is more rough draft and homework than it is prescribed solutions, but here are some ways I’ve come up with to “love” myself more:

1. Find something good in the mirror.

Whenever I look in the mirror or at a picture of myself, the first place my eyes go to are the features I don’t like. There are parts of my face and body that I have not been satisfied with since the time I was 10. If they have been there since I was a child, then I guess they’re not going away without surgery. I haven’t really made peace with these parts and maybe I never will. But one thing I – and we – can do is at least balance that picture a little, so that in our minds we are not just a package of all that is wrong with the human form. Occasionally I’ll look in the mirror and actually like my eyes, or my cheekbones. I like how the muscle in my calves is getting more and more defined now that I’m running more. I need to look at my face and body with different eyes, and let go of the mental picture of the ideal woman that I have been holding myself up to (and falling short of) all these years.

2. Catch yourself doing good.

Positive behavior reinforcement is big at elementary schools now. Catch kids doing good as opposed to giving attention only when they’re “bad.” This could work wonders on me too. Instead of closing each night with guilt that I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my desk or that I had fed soda to my child once again, I could instead think about the things I did well, regardless of how simple they may seem. After all, if my family goes to bed well fed and peacefully, how badly could I have done?

3. Banish “I’m such a bad mom” or “bad” anything from your vocabulary.

It’s amazing how rampant “I’m such a bad mom” is. I can’t begin to count all the times that this self-condemnation has rolled off my tongue whenever I made a mistake, and I can instantly rattle off different examples of the ways my friends have used it. “My daughter has a cavity. I’m such a bad mom.” “My kids had to walk all the way home in the heat. I’m such a bad mom.” “I forgot to give my son cough syrup. I’m such a bad mom.” Or sometimes it goes before the confession: “I’m such a bad mom. I am so critical.” “I’m such a bad mom. I let him watch t.v. all afternoon.” And sometimes there’s no example. Sometimes I just say, “I’m such a bad mom,” period.

Maybe we say this so often that it’s lost its meaning, but can you imagine doing the opposite? What if we said, “I read Goodnight Moon 7 times without stopping. I’m such a good mom.” or “I stayed up with her when she woke up coughing. I’m such a good mom.” Alright, so it sounds almost silly as I type that, which goes to show just how foreign the concept of praising ourselves is.

4. Correct your mistakes.

I had to start doing this recently, to save myself from falling into an abyss of guilt and self-hatred.

I’m at the point in my life and parenting where my past issues are catching up with my son’s entry into tweenhood. It’s new territory for me and I’m sometimes employing familiar but unhealthy tools to relate to my child. More than once I had broken down into tears the instant he stormed out of the room in frustration. Yes, I had a reason to get angry, but as the adult it is my responsibility to react maturely. I could have handled things differently. And so during these times I sit in my room while he sits in his, blocked off from each other by our closed doors. This is usually when I do hate myself, when actual words of reprimand start going off in my head: I’m such a bad mom. I’m awful. I am screwing him up. I have one chance to be a mother and I am messing this up. I am awful. I am awful. I am awful. 

Everything feels so dire when I start thinking like this. And then I realized one day, I have a choice. I can’t take back what I said, but I can make things better, and save us both from sinking into what will one day be an ocean of hurt.

This happened last night. I said something that didn’t come out the way I had intended, but it doesn’t matter, because it had come out and it had hurt him. After I pulled myself together I walked into Fred’s room and told him in tears that I was sorry I had hurt him. I explained to him what I had meant, and that my anger and frustration had prevented me from reacting better and from choosing my words more carefully. He nodded at me slightly and went back to his crossword puzzle. Five minutes later, he came into my room to ask me for help with the puzzle. Twenty minutes later, his arms were wrapped around me as I sang him to sleep.

My point here is not that “I’m sorry” is enough, and that anything can be fixed with an apology. What I’m trying to say is that while I’m on the path of learning how to do better, I can expect to make mistakes, but I have the power to correct them as well.

5. Talk, connect, be vulnerable, ask for help.

You’ve all been so supportive as I swung back and forth on this over the last few weeks. Ultimately I do believe that we poison ourselves when we hesitate to share with others the parts of ourselves we don’t feel proud about. Keeping things secret implies shame. I have a stepson, and for years I kept this within our immediate family only. My mother made me swear to not tell anyone that Max has a child from a previous marriage. There is so much stigma around divorce in my culture, particularly from my parents’ generation. Then one day a friend told me she didn’t learn about her half-brother until she was 18. She said, “The fact that my parents kept everything so hush-hush made it seem like there was something so bad and so wrong about my brother, like it was shameful for him to exist.” Her words changed me. I couldn’t bear the thought of any child having to be made to feel that way, and ever since then I have been open about my stepson’s presence in our lives.

The same holds true of all those different parts within us. Mental illness. Suicide. Divorce. Abuse. Illness. Dysfunction. Failure. Mistakes. Struggle. Hardship. Plain old bad luck. When we cling to this and hold it inside we are equating it with shame which contributes to our self-loathing. But maybe by opening up – whether it’s on a blog or with one trusted friend – we can begin to redefine shame, and give it a new name: human.

18 comments on “How to Love and Be Kind to Yourself

  1. Ariel Price says:

    You sound like a great mom. Your son will remember that you were able to recognize your mistakes when you made them and apologized. That is HUGE! You’re totally right about the idea of praising ourselves… it’s really hard! Especially about appearances. Thanks for the encouragement. :)

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks, Ariel! I do hope that his positive memories of me outweigh the negative ones…;-) I did learn that an apology can go such a long way. Maybe it doesn’t erase the mistake but it can reinforce his trust in me.

  2. Akshita says:

    At so many points in this post, I felt as if my mother was writing. Since the past few years, I keep telling my mother this: Stop being a guilty mother. As you said, positive reinforcement makes as much of an impact as negative reinforcement does.
    Praising yourself is not silly at all. It’s just that our culture believes in the myth of a perfect mother; the all-sacrificing superwoman. Well, she can’t exist.
    As a child, in case of any differences of opinions with my mother, I always appreciate when she apologizes for hurting me (if at all). It shows me that my relationship with her is that of an equal. I’m sure that your son finds that an excellent quality too. I’ve had my share of moody outbursts of growing up, and even at those moments, I remember these qualities, and I’m sure your son does too.

    • Cecilia says:

      Thank you, Akshita, that is very reassuring. I love that you can share with me your perspectives as a daughter, which is something I don’t get to hear as often. I want to always make sure I never feel too proud to tell my child that I am sorry for something. Your mother sounds very caring and devoted. I guess the positive side of guilt is that you can’t feel guilt unless you have a conscience!

  3. Naomi says:

    I think that just the fact that you do your very best to be a good mom makes you one. It’s all any of us can do, really. Our best. And, since nobody’s perfect, our best can’t be perfect either. I think it’s good for kids to learn this, and know this. I didn’t always think that, but my own mother made me realize it one day. We were talking on the phone (a few years ago), and I was having a rough time with the kids. They were cranky and pushing all my buttons, and I had been pretty irritable back. I told mom that I felt like I’d been nagging at them all day, and I felt bad about it. Usually I try to be cheerful around the kids, and at the time, I felt like it was one of my jobs as their mother to always be cheerful around them. But, my mother said, “It’s not going to hurt them to see that people can’t be cheerful and pleasant all the time. They need to know that there are other ways to be. What a shock they would have, when coming up against someone in life who is cranky and irritable and hard to get along with. Better to learn about it from you first.” I’m sure she put it in better words than that, but I have always remembered it when the energy in the house has been feeling negative, rather than positive. It’s not the end of the world, and it will not last. It always feels awful at the time, but in a few days it is completely forgotten (until next time). It also helps me to think back to the things I remember as a kid. Mostly, I remember the good stuff, but any of the bad stuff I do remember I see in a different light. It either seems funny now, or I can see the big picture, even though at the time I could not.

    I love the idea of using positive reinforcement for ourselves. It’s so hard to keep in mind, but I think we all need to do it more! You have given me lots of good ideas to think about, as always. :)

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks, Naomi! And thanks for sharing the story about your mother and her wise words. Yes, sometimes we (or I) worry so much about having our children endure negative experiences that we forget that they need to have those too. My mother was always so strong and stoic that it really rattled me those few times that I saw her sad or worried. Well, I don’t have that problem with my son ;-) I’ve debated if that was good or bad but as long as he feels safe around me, I guess there is nothing wrong with him understanding that mom is just human like him and everybody else. I think we must get our notions of the Super Mom through our own mothers’ extreme sacrifices. And you are right – the negative moments feel awful but they pass. And through that kids learn the natural up and down cycles of real life. Thanks for this!

  4. Emily J. says:

    I love this, and you! We really are two peas in a pod, and I find myself saying all of this and doing all of this. I’m pretty good at the “I’m sorry” part because I NEVER saw my mom apologize and that was a big thing for me to NOT do. But I’m hard on myself and I speak negatively to myself more than I do positively. Just reading your positive examples of how to speak to ourselves made me feel lighter and happier compared to the negative ones. Another thing I learned, which is similar to what you’ve written here, is thought-stopping. If you think, “I’m such a bad mom,” or “I’m so stupid or ugly or . . .,” you should immediately tell yourself, “Stop it! That’s not true. I’m a good person or a good mom.” That has worked for me, if I remember to do it!

    • Cecilia says:

      Oh, you’re a dear! I’m so glad that this post resonates with you, and I feel comforted knowing that you do the same kind of self-criticism (I mean, it’s not good for you but it’s good to know I am not alone ;-)) And I think it’s GREAT that you can be so conscious about doing things completely differently from your mother. I’ve found that it is often hard to break family cycles so the fact that you can do it is wonderful. Good luck to us!

  5. rudrip says:

    There is so much I love about this piece. These are the same issues that echo the struggles for so many of us. I understand what you are saying about how the past may interfere with your present and I am not certain how to navigate those boundaries, but I know that you are paving the way for yourself and others. Step 1 – honesty. You’ve demonstrated that quality over and over again in your posts in the last month and I admire and appreciate your vulnerability. I hope you don’t underestimate its power and how much you are comforting others through your authenticity. I love that you are doing this, Cecilia. It’s made me think about some of my own issues and perhaps, soon, I will have the courage to talk about them too. xoxo

    • Cecilia says:

      I really appreciate your words, Rudri. A friend of mine yesterday sent me links to a couple of blog posts that really spoke to a particular situation she is going through, and she told me that she cried when she read the posts. Hearing her say that encouraged me to keep writing the hard stuff…who knows if my words – and yours – could someday touch someone who really needed to hear them. And I feel supported whenever I read your honesty as well. Contrary to what you said above, I think you have already been showing courage in your writing, and I love that I have a like-minded writing partner. :-)

  6. My biggest hurdle is in asking for help and in asking for it I feel the tension, the pressure, the stress, the worry, and the anxiety lessen from my whole being. Plus I love myself more and so do the people around me – ha! I am also more relaxed, happy and care free. I have been learning about humility and vulnerability too. For #1 what I LOVE the most is that I am like no one else and that is PRETTY AMAZING :) Great Post – thanks so much for sharing. Happy Hump Day!

    • Cecilia says:

      I love the self-love and enthusiasm in your comment! I really agree, too, that once you feel good about yourself, you will radiate that and attract more good people and more love. A great cycle. It sounds like you are taking steps to feel better about asking for help. In my experience people really enjoy feeling needed and being able to do something for others. Knowing that has helped me to ask for help with a little more ease. Thanks for your comment (as always)!

  7. Beautiful story about you and your son. I’m not a parent yet, so I can’t speak from experience, but I’m sure it must be the most difficult job in the world. Nobody is perfect, and that you have conscious awareness of each moment is amazing. A lot of people are not “present” at all.

    I’m a big believer in your last point too. Until we can recognize ALL parts and emotions of ourselves as you so eloquently put it, “human,” we are destined to remain in a cycle of shame and guilt. It was only when I coached myself to truly believe that we just ARE, and that all emotions just ARE (not good or bad), that I found true peace. :D

  8. ayala says:

    Beautiful share about you and your son. It’s wonderful to realize when we have made a mistake and then correct it. Communication and love is what lights the way.

  9. Carolyn O says:

    <3 to you. As usual, I'm late to the comment party, so others have put most gracefully what I'd like to say too. You're wonderful, as both a parent, a friend, a writer, and a human being.

  10. Natalie says:

    How much I appreciate your post Cecilia.

    I’m the champion of beating myself up for not being the good ENOUGH mother.

    Being a second ‘accidental’ child (my mom hoped it’d be at least a son and I turned out to be another girl) I always felt well …’second’ for mom, always daddy’s girl and pal. Mom passed away 25 years ago but it hurts for life to feel unwanted.

    Like Scarlett O’Hara sworn Never Be Hungry Again I always knew and sworn I won’t be THAT kind of mother. And sincerely thought I was.

    My sons are 22 and 13. The younger one is extrovert, sensitive, softhearted, loving and caring, open to share thoughts and emotions. Open to a fault.

    The firstborn is intellectually bright, spoke as an adult since he was 3, introvert, coldhearted, self-sufficient. Got all the love I enveloped him in. Whatever he wanted and we could afford: sports, hobbies, travel, gifted program enrollment, books, movies, conversations, apologies, love, love, admiration, respect – everything I could. Never started with ‘you have to’, always with ‘would you’…etc…etc…
    With my husband traveling a lot for work and tons of after school activities I was considered by my teen a PhD looser stuck at home who bothers him with not having the life of her own.
    Anyway at 17 moved out for a prestigious University, we were so proud, at 18 dropped out and disappeared. Literally.
    I haven’t heard or seen him for 5 years !!! Worried sick, once reported him as a missing person. In two days he dropped an e-mail that he never wants to see or speak to us again.

    I can’t talk about him to anyone even close friends. They know, never ask. Tabu. Think about him every single day. Secretly crying. Don’t want the youngest to know I’m wounded for life. For him I’m a cheerleader full of creative surprises. Just dying the gray hair.

    I’ve spoke to professionals and read a lot. It helps to sooth the wound, but it still bleeds quite often.

    Sorry for a long comment. All I wanted to share was a couple of books you might be interested to implement in your relationship with a teen son. I found them helpful:

    1. Adele Faber. How to talk so teens will listen & listen so teens will talk.
    2. Sean Covey. The 7 habits of highly Effective teens.

    (we are reading it together and learning/discussing). It helps to realize we aren’t the only parents and he isn’t the only teen with common SOLVABLE problems.
    Once again sorry for a lo-o-o-ong comment.

    And once again thank you very much for reminding me not to be so harsh on myself.

    All the very best to you Cecilia.

    Natalie

    http://jewelyettofind.blogspot.ca/

  11. Justine says:

    I do one of these at least once a day – not so much tell myself I’m a bad mom, but feel like one when I think I could’ve reacted better to my daughters’ many limit-pushing antics. I do apologize, but I wish I could be better. I find myself wondering why can’t I be like those moms who use a gentle tone with their children? Why do I fly off the handle so easily? It’s a struggle I live with every day, trying to balance between being more gentle with myself when I do cross my own line and trying to not cross that line. I love your list here, and how you’re owning bits and pieces of yourself, which in the end could be so empowering. Here’s to eventually being “all that we can be” huh? :-)

  12. Wonderful tips/advice and line of thinking, Cecilia. I think we could all use some of this, or lessons on how to be more kind, more compassionate to ourselves. I have struggled with this for years and for the longest time, I didn’t understand why. Then therapy came and I realized that much of how I love/or do not love myself evolves from how I was/wasn’t loved. We treat ourselves with compassionate and worthiness when we learn to believe that we are worthy of those things. We learn it from being shown it as children. We learn what love is in how we are loved, first, by our parents, mainly our mothers. So my journey now has been learning to learn these things, it’s learn to see myself in the mirror and decide that I am loved/worthy/good even if, for so long, I was never told those things or made to believe those things. I don’t know if any of this relates to you, but I thought I’d share in case they did. :)

    p.s. I hope all is well! :)

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