Pema Chodron, director of The Gampo Abbey (the first Tibetan Monastery for Westerners established in North America), is famous for the courageous and compassionate way she encounters difficult experiences and her ability to teach others how to benefit from what she has learned. In meeting one of her students, she commended him on his work with the homeless. His response surprised her. He said that he did not much like the work, but that it was his only opportunity to encounter the parts of himself for which he felt ashamed.
We all have parts of ourselves that we do not much like, perhaps reject, or even find time to criticize privately in our own minds. We come by this experience honestly. It may be the case that shutting down certain parts of ourselves helped us survive difficult times. We might have been left by a romantic partner in the past that haphazardly blamed the breakup on one of our characteristics. It is also possible that we are simply in the wrong line of work or in a poorly fitting relationship. Rather than find a new job or relationship that suits us, we criticize the parts of ourselves that we believe are contributing most to these failures.
I once new a doctor named, Ted. Ted wasn’t exactly a doctor yet. He was actually working his way through medical school, but we called him Dr. Ted because Dr. Ted is more fun and easier to say than my friend Ted who is working his way through medical school. Dr. Ted took his work very seriously. He created the ideal doctor in his head. This doctor was patient and competent in all forms of practice. This doctor operated professionally, and dressed successfully. This doctor was well liked, and, above all, was never critical of anyone. Unbeknownst to Dr. Ted, he stored up all the judgment that would arise naturally in connection to others until he was alone, and then he would direct this judgment towards himself.
Dr. Ted’s pursuit of perfection seems excessive, but can we really blame Ted? He was simply guilty of striving all of the time, and this constant work did not leave him the space for compassion. He also had no modeling for success and happiness while living with imperfection. Like James Barry, the author responsible for Peter Pan, Dr. Ted lost a brother when he was a child and made a secret promise to himself that he would never leave his mother in physical death or in the death of disappointment. So, what did Dr. Ted criticize himself for? He criticized himself for being tired and sometimes slow to complete paperwork. He criticized himself for wanting to judge hospital staff, when they made errors that negatively affected his patients, and he criticized himself for feeling bad instead of enriched when his superiors critiqued his work.
The greatest part that Dr. Ted rejected was his humanity, and the fundamental capacity to err that we all share. Specifically, Ted seemed to focus his criticism the most on his lack of energy, his difficulty tolerating being disappointed by others, and his difficulty tolerating disappointing others. It’s easy to point to Dr. Ted’s mom, and put the blame on her or their relationship, but that’s kind of a cop out. His mother was not aware of this secret agreement, and she presented as unaffected as she could by life’s stressors to prevent herself from falling down the pit of grief created by the loss of her son. She just wanted Dr. Ted to have a good life. Confronting Ted’s mother would likely do harm to their relationship. It would be much better for Dr. Ted to develop a self-compassion practice prior to speaking to his mother, so that he could speak their truth with compassion and perhaps make room for more well-being in both of their lives.
Finding out about Self-Compassion practices, Dr. Ted leapt into them head first, but soon found himself drowning in self-criticism. Intention is just as important as the work. Dr. Ted had not yet decided to give himself compassion. He chose self-compassion to stop being hindered by his rejected parts. There must be room to accept the pain or accept that there is pain before self-compassion can be used successfully.
So, we got creative with Dr. Ted. We had Dr. Ted work with trainers who were training guide dogs for the blind. Dr. Ted could relate to this work. In fact, his first thought was that the dogs had to be even more perfect than himself, as critical errors could be terminal for their future masters. What Ted did not count on was the effect that compassionate trainers would have on the dogs.
The first dog trained was not very helpful for Dr. Ted because he was far into his process of training, and thus not making many mistakes. The next dog, a tiny Labrador who had simply accompanied his older brother was given an opportunity to be exposed to this kind of training, so that down the road training him would be easier. The dog’s name was Muddy, which Dr. Ted thought was an accurate name because of the dog’s brownish, black coat. Dr. Ted would later discover that Muddy got his name because sometimes when it was time for training he would ignore an order and roll around in the mud. The name was not given maliciously. In fact, the trainer loved the name because it reflected the fact that although the dog could be distracted in the mud, he could just as easily return to his training without the slightest bit of self-consciousness. He was a natural at self-compassion.
When Dr. Ted began observing the trainings with Muddy, he was mortified. Every time the dog made a mistake, he feared for the future master and found it hard not to judge the dog. After a while of this, the dog trainer noticed Dr. Ted’s discomfort and asked him if anything was wrong. Surprised by his own words, Dr. Ted blurted out, “Doesn’t this dog know he could kill someone acting like that. What could he be thinking?” The dog trainer told Ted that making mistakes is actually part of the learning process, and that dogs need to make mistakes and get compassion now so that they are able to recalibrate quickly after a mistake with an owner in the future. “It could be quite dangerous for the owner and the dog to have the dog be so anxious after having made a mistake. Anyway, these dogs do such a good job loving, and protecting their owners that they deserve to be honored and loved for their work. It’s not that hard to be patient with them. They all mean well.”
Dr. Ted said that he felt his head spin a little bit, and that he felt different after this exchange. Like his feelings for the dog, he thought of all the criticism he had given himself over the years and how much it had made him vigilant and self-conscious. He also thought about how these attributes slowed his work on some days, and made it so hard to feel good about his work when he returned home. Some days, he didn’t even want to go to work, and he was extremely ashamed of these feelings. Then, Ted finally said it aloud, “I have been punishing myself. I have been punishing myself this whole time.” The trainer was taken by surprise, but all the same managed to say just the right thing, “You seem like a good guy. You probably didn’t deserve it. Life is hard on all of us sometimes, man. It stinks, but it just is.”
After this exchange, Dr. Ted was no longer separated from his suffering. He saw it, and it made him sad. He wanted to live a good life like Muddy, and began the process of self-compassion work. As a lifetime student, he started with the self-compassion phrases, and slow worked his way up to noticing suffering when it was happening in his life and tried to bring compassion to it. Several months later, Dr. Ted told his mother about his journey and asked that she not be disappointed by his decisions. They both cried and hugged a lot, and I am told that they now practice self-compassion together sometimes.
Bringing It All Together
Like Dr. Ted, we all strive to be the best people we can be. Even if we have not gone through something as dire as losing a brother, we have suffered in other ways and simply want to have a successful life. Most of the models we have in the media remind us to work all the time, while few suggest that we be good to ourselves. So when we fail, we often turn to criticism. Given the longstanding nature of feeling bad about certain parts, it might be helpful to explore being a part of positive action directed towards others who suffer in similar ways.
The one caveat is that this environment must prioritize compassion. You can’t just make a group with a friend and celebrate your shame together, even though it is kind of you to want so much for your friend. A compassionate atmosphere where someone else is struggling in the same way you have will give you just enough space to observe, and perhaps participate in the kindness given to their rejected parts without feeling too exposed. Slowly, you will internalize this compassion, and have enough room to direct this work towards yourself in a self-compassionate practice.
May you find the space to bring compassion to your wounded parts. May you have the opportunity to participate in the kindness brought to someone, who suffers similarly. May this open up the door to starting your own self-compassionate practice. May this practice bring you the kind of acceptance that reminds you of that which we already know, you are enough, bruises and all.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 51. In the Books.