If you are family member of a person with addiction or a professional caregiver, this blog entry is definitely for you. Gentleness is possible and good. You deserve it.
I wasn’t trained in gentleness. It’s been a gradually unfolding process over many years. Ever so slowly, like a warm summer breeze, gentleness has brought me healing from self-directed cruelty and self-imposed harshness. It came to me in the form of my friends, my therapist, my sponsor in Al-Anon, my Higher Power, and insights gained from a Gestalt Training Program. But I had to open myself to my needs and my vulnerabilities first, then take action to allow and accept these forms of goodness as they manifested in my life.
For me, gentleness began with becoming genuinely curious about myself and the world around me without being judgmental. Today, gentleness is not so much a goal to achieve as it is a promise to keep. Staying on the gentleness track is a combination of physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual practices which slow me down and return me to the present moment, so I may be fully present to myself, to others, and to life circumstances as they unfold.
The Internal Harshness of Should and Should Not
For years, I have been telling my patients to take care of themselves, to have self-compassion, and to treat themselves with kindness. When it came to using this advice myself, I was a reluctant participant at best. At worst, I was the poster child for beating oneself up. I was (and still am) quite skilled at “shoulding on” myself. If there were a World Championship for this sport, I would surely earn a gold medal.
Here are some of my more common and automatic self-judgments:
- I shouldn’t show weakness. I shouldn’t need to take breaks.
- I shouldn’t ever get tired. I should be able to take whatever life throws at me.
- I should put everyone else ahead of myself, such as my children, my aging parents, and my patients.
- I should be perfect at everything all the time.
- I shouldn’t complain because I only have first-world problems.
This mental audio tape has played on and on in my mind in an endless recital of should and shouldn’t, must and mustn’t, do and don’t. Fortunately, I have developed a capacity to interrupt the playback of the negative self-talk when it occurs and give myself time and space to change the script.
“Like other addictions, my “isms” were just a temporary reprieve, a momentary distraction from unpleasant realities and uncomfortable feelings. Busyness had become a way of life, and there was no time for stopping.”
Some Questions to Shift to a Gentler Way
I learned about gentleness through life experiences, namely, by being too hard on myself and paying the price for that. Gradually, I began trying to do things differently. I began to ask for help and now regularly talk to people who offer perspectives that inspire me to reframe my thoughts. Today, I continually practice new ways of living. This pattern of self-care, however, is not set in stone. It is part of a continuous cycle of making mistakes, relearning what I already know, and beginning again. With these caveats in mind, here are a few more thoughts on the topic of gentleness. My self-reflection and self-care often begin with contemplative questions such as the ones explored below. I hope this narrative will help you on your journey.
1.) Why is life so difficult?
There is a quote that I like: “Obstacles are not IN the way; obstacles ARE the way.” I guess Buddha had it right over 3,000 years ago when he said, “Life is suffering.” These are not pleasant thoughts, but they do help me put experiences into perspective. Other phrases that help me remember the challenging reality of the human experience include “Life isn’t fair” and “The world is not a perfect place.” When I have an expectation that life should be easy and pleasant, I tend to get disappointed. But when I have an expectation that life COULD BE easy and pleasant, it gets me wondering what I need to do internally to bring more flow to difficult situations. When I adjust my expectations, I often find that much desired ease.
2.) What does it mean to be gentle?
Gentle has several meanings, including kind, peaceful, soothing, tender, and merciful. It can also mean gradual or temperate. It is the opposite of harsh or cruel. On an emotional level, being gentle means acting in a kind and compassionate way. It means being forgiving and allowing grace. It implies giving someone the time and space needed to adapt or change—including myself.
3.) Why am I gentle with others but not myself?
It has always been easier for me to be The Helper and not The Helpee. I hate asking for help, because it infers a neediness and dependence that I don’t like to admit. When I peel the layers of those feelings back, I find a sense of unworthiness at the core: I do not deserve gentleness because my needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. However, when I give myself the time and space that I mentioned above, I realize that my needs do count. Without taking care of myself and ensuring that I am healthy, I cannot take care of others.
4.) Why do I avoid gentleness with myself?
I had been “shoulding on” myself for so long that it became a habit, part of my default mode. At the same time, I relied on workaholism and codependency to escape from feelings of neediness and unworthiness. Like other addictions, my “isms” were just a temporary reprieve, a momentary distraction from unpleasant realities and uncomfortable feelings. Busyness had become a way of life, and there was no time for stopping. Even today, I can get stuck in that old and negative habit. However, I now know that I have the power to break the cycle and stop “shoulding on” myself. Intentional breathing encourages stillness, which allows for the much-needed time and space to notice and replace negative internal chatter with acceptance and positive affirmations.
5.) How did I learn gentleness?
Cruelty and self-judgment exact a high price. The constant “shoulding on” myself had taken a toll on my energy, my self-esteem, and my ability to be present to myself and my needs. The constant pressure to do and achieve and produce left me exhausted and resentful, which is not a great recipe for being an effective helper. With the counsel of many people, a regular yoga practice, and spiritual guidance from my Higher Power, I have learned that human being is preferable to human doing. Not that I do the gentleness thing perfectly every day. It’s a process. It’s a journey. I get glimpses of the beauty every so often. I wake up and remember what I have forgotten. I fall down and get back up again. I now recognize this as progress instead of imperfection.
6.) How can I incorporate gentleness into my life?
The physical practice of gentleness has been the most important and the hardest for me to learn. Closing my eyes, breathing deeply, and exhaling slowly is a start. Cognitively, I check my ego at the door with some internal coaching: “Dude, you’re not that important. The world will turn without you. Let it go for five minutes.” Emotionally, I wrap myself in the love of the Universe, cozy and content. I am also moving toward deeper spiritual connection through prayer and meditation, asking my Higher Power for help and then listening to His guidance.
A Daily Practice of Tuning-In
With a gentleness mindset, I promise to count myself as important in my own life. I promise to respect my needs and accept my limitations. I remember that I, too, deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion. I acknowledge that it is okay to rest and take a break. Treating myself gently has benefits for me, and these benefits flow to those whom I care about and care for. When I am gentle and present with myself, others around me resonate with that frequency, like a gentleness tuning fork: they are encouraged to be kind to and present with themselves. Self-directed gentleness and loving-kindness may not make life easier, but they do make life easier to face.
Editing by Paul M. Kubek of PMK Consulting, LLC.