I had a sudden flash of insight on Sunday. I am actually OK. Now that may not seem like such big news but it was pretty mind-blowing to me. I realised that at the age of 52 I may have attained a level of self-worth that is sustainable, that doesn’t rely on external validation or being a UK size 8 or as a form of self-esteem that compares who I am and what I have against others benchmarks. The self-worth I am experiencing encompasses self-compassion and allows me to accept myself, warts and all, it encourages me to treat myself with kindness, to quit judging myself and to acknowledge that I am enough…good enough…clever enough…thin enough…And right now being enough feels great, a huge relief. My inner critic isn’t that crazy about it but I am prepared to give her a hug and let her moan for a while, I’m sure she will still hang around even though my relationship with her is changing. And I have a physical sense of this change too. It has manifested in the way I’ve been dressing, I am a little louder in my choice of clothes, I’ve always been a bit of a sartorial-show-off but of late I have discovered the joy of wearing flashy bright colours and not caring about being totally chic. I have developed an inner-Gucci which is in stark contrast to my more customary navy-clad restraint. I want to stand out not hide for the first time in my life. I have discovered how to fashion my self-worth to create an appropriate fit. So how did I get to this sweet spot of multi-coloured self- acceptance?
I was a painfully shy child who was scared of people, I preferred my imagination and books to the real world. I was the ‘girl in the cupboard’ who retreated to a safe place where I could be alone with my dolls for company and colour in outside the lines without any judgments from others. I didn’t make friends easily, I was an odd child who grew into an unhappy troubled teenager, I had an unhealthy relationship with food and found the social aspect of school so painful that I was eventually allowed home schooling to complete my education. At one point my self-worth was so low that if I caught sight of myself in a mirror I would retch. Art, painting and fashion became my savour, I was able to create a new version of myself at Art School; I clothed my insecurities with a style that covered up my fears. I also had a kind therapist who enabled me to get back into the outside world and learn to live again. But for the next thirty years I battled with an internal dialogue that berated me for being fat, stupid, ugly, lacking; I was never enough.
It’s difficult in retrospect to pinpoint when the balance of self-worth changed to reach a tipping point where I accepted it was OK to be me. I began my own training to be a counsellor over 10 years ago, that helped, however this final leap into valuing who I am has been achieved with the knowledge that I have gained through studying applied positive psychology. And some of that is down to Dr. Kristin Neff, one of my favourite researchers; her work on self-compassion advises that we treat ourselves as we would a good friend. Neff divides self-compassion into three elements, self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. As I read more about Neff’s work I incorporated her research into my life. I began intentionally practicing more self-kindness, having the same positive regard for myself as displayed to others, I treated myself with gentleness when I felt inadequate, I noticed when I was harsh on myself (often being tired was a trigger),I developed a patience towards my flaws, I valued accepting the inevitable and felt greater emotional stability. And as I accepted myself more so sure enough I felt more connected to others. I had long overcome my shyness, most people would consider me an extrovert, someone described me as collecting people as other women collect shoes, (I do that as well!) however the greater my own self-worth grew the stronger my sense of what
Thich Nhat Hahn refers to as ‘interbeing’, the less judgmental we are about our own imperfections the more we are able to acknowledge our indispensible interdependence. I understood that we are all in this together; I am able to take ‘life’ less personally. And then of course there is mindfulness, the awareness of all of our emotions, thoughts and behaviours with a sense of curiosity that neither limits nor expands our feelings but just says ‘ahh that’s interesting’.
I am a great advocate of creativity and my way to generate self- worth, using Neff’s ideas, was to make a self-compassion art journal; I took large blank book and covered it in drawings, collages and words to chart my route. I headed pages based on self-compassion exercises recommended on Neff’s website, titles such as what do I really want, a magical unicorn, how can I love my inner critic, give her glitter, and where do I need a self-compassion break, somewhere over the rainbow, unleashed an outrageous side that I had been suppressing under the layers of good taste I had worn for years.
My journal was soon filled with a colourful and personal visual representation of why I am OK, I can review it whenever I need and add to it if I feel the urge. It’s a fun reminder for me, it makes me smile, it’s slightly silly but it plays a part in my on-going journey to self-acceptance.
Playfulness and childlike creativity may not seem like a particularly ‘deep’ way to connect with self-worth but they have connected me to the ‘girl in the cupboard’ I once was and encouraged her to develop a self-compassionate path to emerge into the world and claim her place in full Technicolor glory, with glitter and sparkles. I am no longer ashamed to shine, you can find me wearing gold boots and standing out loud and proud. I am able to accept all of me with kindness, compassion and empathy and that is a healthy position from which to form long-lasting relationships based on love, especially if you chuck in some glitter!
Originally published at medium.com