A couple of years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to learn one poem by heart every month. That would bring me joy, I thought, and sharpen my mind. It would make me a better, more impressive Mindfulness teacher too, being able to recite poems by heart during my courses. I love poetry so I was sure it wouldn’t even feel like a chore, it would be a fun challenge!
I started in earnest and got close to learning a poem in January but for whatever reason it didn’t really stick. In February I decided I should learn two poems to make up for my failure in January, but life got busy and that didn’t happen either. By March I had more or less given up and was berating myself that I hadn’t managed to achieve such a meagre goal. Rather than finding my usual enjoyment in poetry, now it just reminded me of my failure and lack of self-discipline. After 12 months of low-level, niggling guilt there was still only one poem I knew by heart (‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver in case you’re interested), and that’s one that I had learnt almost without trying on holiday once.
This has tended to be my experience with New Year’s resolutions over the years: that they quickly become sources of guilt rather than motivation, reminding me of all the things I’m not achieving, and all the ways I could be better if I could just be more disciplined. I would be a better/happier/healthier person if only I could meditate for longer, eat better, exercise more, work harder etc.
Underlying all of this was the corrosive belief that I am not OK as I am. The belief that it would only be through effort, discipline, and grit that I would ever become a better version of myself. Meditation teacher Bob Sharples calls this “the subtle aggression of self-improvement”. I often share that quote with students, because it’s so common that people come to Mindfulness with the goal to become ‘better’ in some way; calmer, less stressed, more focussed. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting any of these things, there’s nothing more normal when we’re struggling than to want things to be better. The risk is that we start seeing ourselves as a project, a half-finished piece of work that we must force ourselves to complete. We focus on our flaws and imperfections, on all the ways we are falling short, all the aspects of ourselves we feel need to be fixed.
How about this year (which let’s face it, is hard enough as it is), we gave ourselves a break from all that striving and self-flagellation? What if we acknowledged that survival may be the best we can hope for just now, and that we are already coping the best we can? Wouldn’t it be a relief?
The harsh voice of our inner critic – which so often drives our well-intentioned goals for self-improvement – could be replaced with a kinder, softer voice. We could adopt the same kind of words and tone we might use with a friend or loved one who was feeling inadequate – recognising that things are hard and offering friendship and compassion rather than guilt-tripping and disapproval.
So that’s what I’m doing this year, join me if you like. Every time I notice myself using that nagging, judgmental tone (‘I should be achieving more’, ‘I should be eating less’, ‘I’d be happier if only I …”) I will be gently reassuring myself that I am already enough, I am already whole, I am already worthy of love.
Learn more about self-compassion:
This recent Guardian article is a great starting point: ‘Silence your inner critic: a guide to self-compassion in the toughest times’
Kristin Neff has a range of free guided self-compassion meditations and exercises on her excellent website, and you can Test how self-compassionate you are
Here’s that Bob Sharples quote in full, from ‘Meditation: Calming the Mind’ (and before you ask, no I won’t be attempting to learn it by heart anytime soon):
“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives up in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”
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