‘Learning to embrace yourself and your imperfections gives you the resilience needed to thrive’ –Kristin Neff

To the world, I had it all together. I appeared to live adventurously, achieve materially and was held up among my family as an example of accomplishment. It’s a lot to constantly live up to, especially when imposter syndrome lurked in the dark taunting me with the lie that you’ll never be good enough.

If you’ve read my midlife story you know where and why I got stuck on a need to do everything right, proving my capability and worth. My low self-concept caused me to play safe, afraid to try new things unless I could predict a successful outcome.  Living with such self-imposed limitations kept me from stepping into my full potential beyond the external decorations that others regard as ‘success’.

Parker Palmer eloquently echoed what I felt beneath all that fluff:

‘The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?’ (LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK).

The striving for perfectionism, external achievements, and the many roles I fill subconsciously spilt over into those relationships. Perfectionism was my yardstick for life. Anything less caused me to cringe with shame in the repeating life refrain ‘you’re not good enough’.

In midlife when reflected on my earlier life seasons and the pivotal experiences that shaped me, new truths and insights emerged. Once I understood where that false belief was rooted, I decided enough was enough. I intentionally pulled that weed from my subconscious and started stepping into a renewed, redeemed identity fragranced with unconditional love and inherent self-worth.

But there was something else too that helped me shift from self-criticism and unrealistic expectations and perfectionism to gentler self-acceptance. It’s a lesson my daughter taught me about self-compassion.

‘Self-compassion is extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering’Definitions.net

Kristin Neff, a developmental psychologist, and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion wrote about failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection. She states “Whether we’re living up to our ideals at the moment, or failing miserably, we can relate to ourselves with kindness and concern. Rather than managing our self-image so that it is always palatable, self-compassion honours the fact that all human beings have both strengths and weaknesses.”

Neff cites research that links self-compassion to higher levels of happiness, optimism, curiosity, and connectedness and decreased anxiety, depression, rumination, and fear of failure.

The idea of developing such self-compassion was liberating. That is, to have the freedom to allow ourselves to sometimes fail and still feel worthy. This was a foreign concept to me until my child showed me how this is possible.

My daughter had just started grade school and there was unease that ‘something was wrong’ with her. She didn’t speak to anyone at school, nor did she participate in class activities. She stood back timidly watching her classmates run and play. They eagerly raised their hands to answer questions and speak their young minds. She stood by silently, locked behind a wall of anxiety. Concerns floated around that she ‘didn’t fit in’ with the unfamiliar environment. And that perhaps that school was ‘not the right place’ for her. 

She was diagnosed with social anxiety that presented in early life with selective mutism. Selective mutism is defined as a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations. This is more obvious in school or in unfamiliar crowded social environments.

We didn’t notice these symptoms sooner because in a comfortable, familiar environment the symptoms are not apparent. The child we knew at home was the opposite of the way she presented at school.  

I wish I can say that once we identified the problem, we were able to quickly fix it and file it away as one more ‘accomplishment’. But this was not the case. 

How do I, a self-driven perfectionist when it comes to my own challenges and achievements and striving to live up to others’ expectations, respond to my child whose journey ahead was rife with challenges and setbacks that promised to be anything but ‘perfect’?

  • Do I push, pressure, shame, and chastise her when she sometimes fails and must re-do things that seem to come more easily to others? Or do I offer her compassion, patience, and understanding?
  • Do I make her feel like she’s a failure because she isn’t like her peers in all respects? Or do I instil the truth that she is inherently worthy and encourage her to embrace her uniqueness and uncover her strengths and passions?
  • Do I insist she strives to conform to the mainstream expectations or provide her with the kind of support she needs to grow inner trust in herself and her social environment?

Neff, who echoes the latter approach, defines self-compassion as having three components that interplay to create a self-compassionate frame of mind:

  1. Self-kindness versus self-judgment. Self-kindness involves being caring and understanding, soothing, and comforting oneself instead of being harshly critical or judgmental.
  2. A sense of common humanity versus isolation with a view that all humans are imperfect, fail and will make mistakes.
  3. Mindfulness versus over-identification. This involves a mindful awareness of one’s present moment in a clear, balanced manner that neither ignores nor obsesses about aspects we don’t like about ourselves.

My daughter has long moved on from her formative years, forged her way through matric, and is currently pursuing tertiary studies. She’s found creative ways to express her individuality through digital art, fashion, and hobbies. She isn’t a cookie-cutter child who fits the mainstream boxes and labels. She’s gained a clearer understanding of the challenges and developed her voice. She’s able to help those around her figure out ways to best support her. 

Today, she still lives with social anxiety. She’s learned to communicate with others at a pace that she can manage and can clearly express her needs. She carefully considers social settings to suit her needs. She built a small inner circle around her that loves, accepts, and supports her consistently. Ironically, this includes a few friends that originated in her early educational environment where her challenges were first noticed.

She approaches high-stress situations, like writing an exam, or more recently, taking her driver’s test with patience and self-compassion. Things such as these take her a few tries to get through, but eventually, she does.

Parker Palmer also writes:

‘Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’

In her quieter inner world, my daughter understands this and is listening to her life better than I’d been listening to mine.  Today, she quietly and gently flits through life by the beat of her own drum.  She allows herself to feel disappointment, and joy – especially joy. She celebrates her small victories as much as the bigger ones.  She cries when she fails but then valiantly picks herself up and tries once, twice, or three times more. She’s developed a kind of courage and resilience through her setbacks that still astounds me.

I’m in awe of how brave and open she is to embracing life. She dreams big and pursues her goals, one small step at a time. She thinks things through carefully in an unrushed way, preparing herself that the road to realizing her aspirations will be unconventional but possible.  She’s accepted herself as she is, uncovering what she’s capable of, and is developing her passions and life interests slowly, at her own pace. As she embraces her life in all its unique facets, she has learned to practice self-compassion.

God, in His mysterious ways, chose me to parent this beautiful, sensitive human. And it’s not because I believe I’m the ideal person for the job. There’s probably people far better shaped to love, nurture and help shape her to grow into all she was innately created to be. I sometimes wonder if part of why God entrusted her to me and our small family runs deeper. Most days it seems she teaches us more than we could ever teach her. Not the least of which has been the value of self-compassion.

Neff notes that people who lack self-compassion as I’ve done for most of my life, are prone to lower feelings of self-worth. That’s because we are so self-critical and hard on ourselves. In contrast, those, like my daughter with higher levels of self-compassion, also have higher feelings of self-worth because they’re kinder and more self-accepting.

Self-compassion can be particularly salient in midlife when you take stock of your life, choices, mistakes, and regrets. And when reflecting on how you’ve dealt with challenges and complex relationships. It’s easy to self-criticize, chastise, and feel shame for our perceived failures.

In earlier life seasons I functioned on autopilot without deeper self-awareness about my unconscious driving forces. I’m surprised that while I was able to hold space for my child to find her way self-compassionately, I couldn’t do the same. Having seen my daughter apply self-compassion in her life, I can take a page from her book. I can pivot away from false perfectionism and self-criticism. Instead, I look back with grace and self-forgiveness while acknowledging mistakes and being willing to grow and make necessary changes as I navigate midlife.

Neff emphasizes that people with higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity, connectedness, and lower feelings of anxiety, depression, rumination, and fear of failing. These are elements that can help one thrive in midlife both internally and in relation to others.

Do you manage your imperfections, ‘flaws’, or limitations with self-chastisement, inner criticism, and self-shame? Or with denial and defensiveness? Or do you allow yourself to fail with grace and still feel valued and worthy? Because if you can learn to hold space within yourself to be imperfect, this will spill over into your relationships where you will offer the same sentiment of self-compassion to someone else.

Finally, the saying rings true, we are never too old to learn, or change!

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