Self-forgiveness - your lockdown-busting super power!
“You’re not a failure! You are doing your best during a difficult time. You’re making sense of all the restrictions in your life right now while managing higher stress levels than you’ve probably ever dealt with before.”
These are the reassuring words I’ve been saying to so many clients as well as some of my friends and family over the past year since the first lockdown. I even say these words to myself when I feel I should have worked harder; when I worry about meeting a deadline or feel I wasn’t as empathic as I would like to be with a client.
These words offer us space. Space to think and reflect. Space to imagine what we might do differently next time. Such words calm us down and begin the incredibly important work of being kind to ourselves.
Homeschooling the kids, job stresses caused by remote working, feelings of isolation, relationship pressures, concerns about our own and our loved ones’ health - these are just some of the issues we’re juggling, which is why it really isn’t helpful to give ourselves a hard time for not doing better.
But what if we went a step further and turned this idea on its head? What if we stopped beating ourselves up and told ourselves we’re doing pretty well, all things considered? Already you may notice things start to feel a little better, right?
When things do go wrong - we become short-tempered and shout because we catch our nine-year-old napping in his bedroom rather than studying hard at 10am on a Monday morning, or we’re under-prepared for the weekly meeting with our team - we give ourselves time to think. What could I do differently next time? What is this situation challenging me to do differently?
It’s an idea I first came across when I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by American psychologist Carole Dweck. If we can see our mistakes, failures or missteps as learning opportunities rather than moments of harsh self-recrimination, we grow and learn. We have the opportunity to be more fully ourselves.
Do you have an inner critic?
Many of us carry a critical voice in our heads. This is how to recognise if you have one too. It will probably have the hectoring quality of a bossy older sibling or a bullying teacher. It will use words like ‘should’ and ‘never’, like “You should have said more in the meeting, your boss will think you’re not engaged enough” or “You’ll never make it to see the pyramids. You just don’t have the focus to make such a trip happen.”
A brilliant aspect of our minds is our ability to notice our thoughts while we’re having them. When you do hear your critical voice in your head it’s useful to write down precisely what it’s telling you. Then ask yourself this simple but powerful question:
“Is this really true?”
Shine a clear, rational and critical light on what you’ve written down. It’s remarkable how quickly the words which were causing your so much anxiety as they rattled around your head start to diminish in their power when you scrutinise them honestly. Like sunshine chasing shadows, they soon disappear.
This is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique. It’s a powerful tool for reducing the stress brought on by our own negative thoughts.
Inevitably, it takes practice to bring our wayward thoughts under control. I think of them as a curious puppy who wants to wander off and get into mischief and lead us astray. Our ability to regularly critically scrutinise our thoughts brings them under control, like pulling the puppy back to heel. CBT is the leash that trains our puppyish minds.
Over time and with regular practice, you’ll notice your thoughts become more forgiving and less critical. You become more patient with yourself, perhaps even laughing at your missteps rather than beating yourself up.
Come up with your own version of your soothing words to give yourself the power of forgiveness and never forget to tell yourself, “You’re doing your best.”