One sure-fire way of making things harder than they are: comparing myself to others. It’s been said over and over again by uncountable writers of happy-life-advice, and I tend to shrug my shoulders and say, “well, that’s part of being human, it’s not possible not to compare yourself”. We do it by default, most of us, and often without noticing. And maybe we even look down at the few who don’t seem aware of comparisons, as if they missed something essential, one crucial category of how-to-judge-myself-better. How childish of them! How blind! Can’t they see that…
Of course, there’s always the possibility that those few see something else entirely that I miss. That they are blind to things that don’t really matter that much, and therefore see more of the things that might actually make life richer and more enjoyable. Maybe they aren’t childish, just more childlike. Free to feel curiosity, free to explore, free to not let judgment get in the way of enjoyment. (I just noticed – isn’t this too judging myself by comparison…?)
Somehow what others do or say or (seem to) think seems so important. At times, I have the strength and connection with myself to not care that much, and to know what matters to me – perspective, in short. Other times, when I’m tired, overwhelmed or unhappy, it’s easy for insecurity and self-doubt and eventually a sense of defeat to take hold, and I judge myself for how blind I am, for how much I fail, how much better everyone else is coping or how much more they seem to know, how much I’m falling short of who I should be and what I should be able to do. I’m making life hell for myself for no reason at all, building judgment on unhappiness and lack of support and chaotic and unhealthy dynamics around me. (And then I judge myself for doing it!) There comes a point when I can’t protect myself anymore from taking it all in. And then I have to work again at getting myself out of that hole, finding a ladder or making one, and going up one step at a time, until I can see again where I am and what’s around me, and know the difference between the two.
It feels quite dangerous to me, this process. I don’t feel like I can allow myself to fail sometimes because I’m the only one who can hold my life together. Hence self-control. Hence judgment to prevent failure (aka perfectionism). So if I fail in one thing, everything might fall apart. If I fall a bit, I might never stop falling. I don’t have much trust that someone will catch me. Why would they.
There are few places in my life where I feel I can rest, where I can safely show how vulnerable I feel, and where a sense of acceptance and compassion can be restored.
There is no family I come home to, no partner or mum who will make me a cup of tea and listen to what’s been going on at the end of a day.
It’s often easy for me to establish good relationships with the people around me, relationships that go deeper than surface level, but not deep enough to actually be friendships. That’s the level of connection I need with people to feel safe (enough) around them. But it’s rare for me to become really close with someone. Others often share more with me than I share with them, or at least the felt level of how personal the shared bit is seems different. I might share facts or insights, but I rarely share feelings. For that I need a whole other level of safety.
Most of the few people I am really close to live far away; there are no long evenings with conversations over cups of tea or glasses of wine, but emails or online chats, and these are limited forms of communication.
So where do I find encouragement then, an open ear, support? Because that’s often what gets people out of self-doubt pits and clueless corners… I get stuck in my own head. And I need conversation with others to step out of that restricted space, and see more. The fact is, I need love. Just like everyone else does.
However, the question is also: do I receive all the love that is offered to me? Do I take it in? I read a quote a while ago, can’t remember by whom, that said, “We receive the love we feel we deserve”, or something to that effect (might have been Jung). And that opens a whole other can of worms. A whole other way in which I might be limiting myself (and, since I put it this way, it seems I’m judging myself for it – as if noticing it should lead directly to being able to “fix it”).
But if that’s the case, whatever the reasons may be, how do I change it? Can I change it? And if I have no answers to that, I’m back where I started – in an ideal place to sit and judge myself for not being able to figure it out, or for making things more complicated than they are, or for being selfish if I say I need help because, in comparison, the things I struggle with seem so much less deserving of help than the trouble of others.
I’ve discussed a bit of this with a prayer guide on a retreat a few years ago – she had suggested I look at the story with the 99 sheep and the shepherd leaving them to go look for no.100. And I felt very much that the shepherd was doing a bad job by leaving the 99 to go after one. What would happen to the 99? Who would protect them? Who cares if one of 100 goes missing…probably its own fault… How guilty would I feel if I was that one sheep and the 99 others were left alone because of me?
Strangely, if that lost sheep wasn’t me, and I was one of the 99, of course I’d agree that the shepherd absolutely had to go and find it and make sure it’s okay…
So what I need to find out again is that I deserve just as much love as everyone else does. That there is an equal place for me within this whole family of human beings. That I do matter enough for someone to go out of their way to help me. I deserve to be loved in the same way I want everyone around me to be loved. And, in fact, I am loved. Maybe not always by those whose love I wish for, maybe not always in the way I would like to be loved. But I am loved. And I do have a place. And it is safe for me to feel and to need and to say so.
It seems like a dangerous thing to feel or accept. But it’s what every retreat is about. It’s what Lent is about – “Repent, and believe in the good news”… And we go all out for repenting, without getting it, really, and we forget the bit about this being good news.
Repentance is a “change of heart”, it’s “turning to God”, it’s turning away from what is destructive for others and for ourselves. Because of the way the word “repentance” has been used, it now seems connected with guilt and shame and, big surprise, judging ourselves and others…
The change of heart that I need is to do with showing kindness to myself, having compassion with my own heart, and forgiving myself for all the ways in which I feel I am less than I would like to be. Because God says, “You are precious in my eyes, and I love you”. Turning to God is no punishment for sins, but the way to new life, to life in all its fullness. I’m still learning, like many of us, that God is good. And not in some new definition of “good” that involves punishment and judgment and making us feel guilty, but good as in ‘you will feel loved and accepted and welcomed and wished for in God’s presence’. That kind of good. Because that’s how I’ll learn to believe that I’m worth receiving love. And the more I believe that, the freer I will be in my life, and the less it will matter what others do or say or (seem to) think. If God is for us, who can be against us… If God can love me like this, then I’m safe. And I can just live. And I don’t lack anything.