So often, people tell me they feel shame and guilt for the things they’ve done. For example, Peter said he felt really bad that he yelled at his wife. He was tired; he’d had a stressful day at work and the train was late, so he missed a meeting. When he got home from work, his wife asked how his day was. He snapped at her and said: “I don’t want to talk about it!” She snapped back: “I’m sick of this! Something’s got to change. You’re so grumpy all the time.”
Taylor said she feels guilty that she’s not at university. She did well at school but just doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She’s in a part-time job that’s pretty unsatisfying. She’s afraid about the future and constantly beats herself up for not being able to make a clear decision about her future.
Every day, millions of people walk around beating themselves up for things they’ve done, or haven’t done. Taylor and Peter told me that their shame, guilt and anger weighs them down so heavily, sometimes they feel like they can’t breathe.
When asked about what lies beneath these strong feelings, many people like Taylor and Peter say they don’t feel good enough; that there’s something wrong with them. That’s why they have to beat themselves up all the time.
Beating ourselves up is exhausting and soul-destroying. There is another way. We can be kind to ourselves and show ourselves some compassion. In fact, many of us, if we were giving advice to a friend, would say to them: “It’s okay, everyone makes mistakes. Just hang in there. You’re a good person.” It’s time to start saying this to ourselves.
There is also a short, five-minute self-compassion mindfulness exercise that can really help in times of stress, self-hatred, shame or guilt.
Sit comfortably on a chair with your hands sitting gently on your lap. Allow your breathing to slow. Close your eyes, or focus on a still object in front of you. Bring your attention to the breath coming in and out of your nostrils, or notice your tummy rising and falling. Do three breaths in this way.
Now bring to mind the kindest, most caring and forgiving person you know. If you can’t think of anyone, you might choose someone famous like the Dalai Lama. Some of my clients choose Oprah or Ellen DeGeneres. Imagine them speaking to you kindly and caringly. Imagine them forgiving you, unconditionally. Now focus on the palm of your left hand. Imagine all that kindness and caring energy is being directed into your left hand. Take three more breaths as you do this.
Bring your left hand up and place it over your heart. Allow the compassionate, kind and caring energy in your hand to absorb into your heart. Breathe in and out for three breaths, or longer if you prefer.
Slowly open your eyes and notice how you’re feeling.
Peter told me that after doing this mindfulness exercise many times, he realised that his life was too busy. He made a commitment to cut down his work hours. He also decided to talk to his wife during the weekend at a time when they were both calm. He explained how stressed he had become. She thanked him for actually communicating with her and supported him to reduce his hours.
After doing the exercise, Taylor cut herself a break and allowed herself to enjoy her year of being in a part-time job. She said by doing the mindfulness exercise, it gave her breathing space to feel gratitude for all the spare time she has. She is now exploring university courses for next year, at her own pace and in her own time.
I encourage you to try this exercise regularly and let me know how you found it.