Practicing Gentleness with Ourselves

My past is littered with difficult memories. I think we’ve all acted in ways we aren’t proud of and said things we wish we could take back. When those memories surface, my go-to reaction is self-criticism and condemnation. I tend to be quite hard on myself.

That’s why I was surprised when a trusted friend pointed out how gently I’d treated my younger self in a piece of writing I shared with her.

Being gentle with ourselves is easier said than done, especially if we have a long history of harshness. No matter how often I encourage others to be gentle with themselves and remind myself to do the same, it takes intentional practice to shift ingrained patterns of thoughts and behavior.

My friend’s comment helped me notice how much progress I’ve made. One of the things that’s been most helpful for me in learning to treat myself gently is practicing in retrospect. It can be particularly challenging to try to change our default reaction in the heat of the moment but practicing with memories can help us build a healthier relationship with ourselves. This give us options to reach for the next time we’re in a difficult moment.

One of my favorite ways to practice this new way of relating to myself is through writing. I write about a memory I’m judging harshly and then write a new response. Writing it out makes me actually wrap words around my thoughts and feelings instead of glossing over them or leaving them as vague impressions. Reading over what I’ve written can help me see a situation from a different perspective. Speaking into a recorder is another great option.

I’d love for you to try this with me. Think about a time when you wish you’d acted differently. As you work with this memory, here are a few things to consider:

Don’t start with the hardest moment.

While a memory that brings up strong feelings of anger or shame could probably benefit from a gentle approach, it’s not going to be an easy place to begin. Start practicing where your feelings of self-criticism are less intense and work your way up.

Choosing a time when you were sad or afraid might be an easier place to start feeling compassion. Sometimes, although not always, a memory from longer ago gives us enough distance to start changing our approach.

Remember as vividly as possible.

Write specifically about what it was like to be there at that time – include sensory details. What were you wearing? Who else was there? What could you see, hear, smell? What was the weather like?

Don’t only focus on what you did or didn’t do, include how you felt. Was there tenseness in your body? Were you hurt, confused, angry, afraid?

Try to really see yourself as you were in that moment. It’s harder to be harsh when you get close enough to really see what someone is experiencing instead of just judging behavior, even if that someone is you. Which leads to…

Get underneath the surface behaviors.

You may have done or said things that you aren’t proud of or neglected to do something you believe you should have done. What prompted you to act in this way? What did you hope to accomplish or avoid (whether or not your realized it at the time)?

Were you trying to meet expectations from others? Did you feel a need to protect yourself? Was your reaction actually spillover from a different situation in your life? Did you lack a full understanding of the situation? Did you want something different at that time than what you desire today?

Don’t judge your past self by what you know now.

We don’t know what we don’t know. We learn through our life experience, often by making mistakes. It’s not fair to expect our sixteen-year-old self to know everything we’ve learned by age 34. No matter how much we wish we’d known better, it’s not helpful to judge the person we were last week by what we learned yesterday.

As we’re often far harsher with ourselves than with other people, it can be easier to see where we’re being unfair or expecting too much if we pretend we’re someone else. Think of someone who is the age you were then. Think of a friend or family member you care about. Picture them in your place in the memory you’re working with. How does your response change? Hold on to that perspective as you consider…

What do you wish you could tell that past version of yourself?

Instead of berating your younger self (even if only a minute younger) for not knowing better, what if you encouraged her with what she will learn? Can you empathize with the difficulty of her situation instead of lecturing about what she should have done?

What could someone have said to you then that would have meant the most to you? Can you say that to yourself? Did you need someone to acknowledge how you were feeling? Did you need assurance that things would be OK? Did you need permission to stop trying so hard to be perfect?

Is there a part of you who still needs to hear those things today?

What practicing gentleness is not.

When we are gentle with ourselves, we are not excusing our behavior or pretending we did nothing wrong if we did. Remember, there is a difference between actually doing something wrong and wishing we’d done things differently. We can be gentle with ourselves while still taking responsibility for any mess we’ve made. In fact, we may feel more confident to own up to our mistakes instead of hiding from them if we’re met with gentle firmness instead of harsh criticism.

Why practicing gentleness is important.

Treating ourselves gently won’t change the past any more than avoidance or criticism will. But our relationship with the past does affect our present. It shapes the way we treat ourselves now, which in turn influences what we contribute to the world and how we relate to others.

Shame and cruelty prompt hiding and self-protection. Gentleness inspires trust, growth and healing. How you treat yourself matters. It impacts your willingness to take risks and your ability to stay present to the realities of your life. When we are gentle with ourselves, we’re more likely to deal gently with others as well.

Meeting ourselves with gentleness is not what comes most naturally to many of us. We’re used to keeping ourselves in line and keeping ourselves safe by being harsh and demanding. That’s why it’s so helpful to practice.

When I was able to be gentle with that younger version of myself, my memory stopped being quite so painful. It settled in as a piece of my story that I’ve learned from instead of being paraded in front of me as yet more evidence that I’m not good enough.

I’m more ready to acknowledge my younger self as “me” instead of something to hide away and hope no one discovers. I’m reminded my future self will likely look back on some of the things I’m doing now with regret. That’s OK. Regret is painful but it also shows us how much we’re learning and growing.

Remember – you are allowed to be a work in progress.

I’d love to know if you tend to be harsh or gentle with yourself. What might change if you practiced a little more gentleness? Leave a comment and let me know how gently exploring your memory works for you.

Johanna Schram is learning to value wrestling with the questions over having all the answers. She’s sifting through the internal and external expectations of who she is supposed to be to discover who she really is, what she values and what she has to give. Join her at "joRuth" and deepen your self-knowledge with these free guides.

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