Being Well by Erin Brandel Dykhuizen
Last night I was sitting on my couch, watching TV, and I found my arms resting on my ever-growing belly and noticed it was a bit bigger than last time I checked. Mind you, I am not pregnant. No, this “fluffiness” is due in part to letting my gym membership lapse because of the pandemic and in part due to the stress-eating and take-out habit (support local restaurants!) that I have acquired. I catch myself staring at my body, thinking, “I’m disgusting. I can’t stand myself. I have no self-control. It’s not like I have lacked the time to exercise.”
We can be our harshest, most dishonest and unreasonable critics. Maybe you can relate, though perhaps it’s not about your belly but your messy house, your shaky finances, your chronic disorganization, etc. So many things can lure us into this trap of self-criticism. Often our immediate response is to make a plan to fix the problem that we can’t help but fixate on — a big plan. So, we embark on the latest diet, decide to Marie Kondo the entire house, make a budget that we are definitely going to stick to this time, cutting back a little extra for January because we overspent during the holidays. We decide to fix our problems once and for all. This is an especially prevalent reaction at the beginning of the year when we are encouraged to set resolutions to transform our lives for the better.
That works sometimes, but most often, big changes fail, and when we fail, we fall back into the cycle of self-criticism and the behavior that was distressing to begin with. Except with the idea that we have failed at making a change now haunting us, we often feel worse than before. It is hopeless, you might think to yourself, rationalizing that you might as well finish that box of chocolates.
What to do instead? This January, I challenge you to a new resolution: use self-compassion. That is, treat yourself with kindness and understanding, much the way you would treat any fellow human being. This may sound simple, but many of us find it much easier to be compassionate with others than with ourselves. Think of some of the words you use to describe yourself inside your head when you mess up. Do you call yourself stupid, lazy, or a screw-up? Now imagine how you’d feel if someone said those things about someone you care about, such as a child you love. You’d probably get pretty angry. You might even tell them off, that they have no right to talk to your loved one that way.
So why do we tolerate this kind of abuse from ourselves? It’s certainly not effective to berate ourselves over past mistakes. We wouldn’t talk to anyone else this way. The next time you find yourself criticizing or shaming yourself, stop. Take a moment and picture yourself as a small child. Talk to yourself with kindness. Give yourself a mental hug. Let yourself know it’s okay to make mistakes. You don’t need to be perfect. You can accept your imperfections, and you can keep trying. Go ahead and start that exercise routine, but do it because it will make you feel better and live a longer, healthier life — not because you hate your beautiful, fluffy belly.
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist living and working in the West Seventh neighborhood. You can learn more about her work at www.erinbdlicsw.com.