Sometimes life throws you a lesson that hits you hard, like a bucket of ice water dumped over your head on a 90-degree day. The Universe delivers a wake-up telling you to shift and change gears.
July 4th I had such a lesson.
Beau and I had packed up my red Ford C-max and were heading down I-89 S towards Stockbridge towards Vermont River Tubing.
Tubing down a lazy river had been on my bucket list for a long time so I felt like a 7-year-old going to Disney. I had planned to go tubing a many times but the conditions were never right. Tubing is a 3 bears experience – the river has to be not too high, not too low but just right. July 4th everything was perfect.
The weather was incredible – blue sky dotted with cottony clouds, hot but not searing, low humidity – the kind of Vermont day you dream about in January when it’s 2° below and there are three feet of snow on the ground. Plus, June had rained a lot, so the Green Mountains shone emerald and resembled thousands of giant broccoli stalks.
We turned up the Beatles and turned off the interstate on to VT-107. From there we followed the directions of Karen Jacobsen – the “Guiding Voice” of our GPS device who instructed us to follow 107 to VT 100 S and continue for another 5.1 miles. I glanced at my phone thrilled that we’d arrive in 15 minutes. We passed another tubing place, a national forest, the Green Mountain golf course and a gas station or two as the chirpy voice encouraged us onwards towards our destination Vermont River Tubing 902 VT-100.
Finally she announced: “Arrived the destination is on your left.” But there was no 902 VT-100, only an 832, which quickly jumped to 1046 with no destinations in between.
I panicked and had a PTSD attack. Bad directions and getting lost while driving trigger me. Growing up, way before GPS devices, my parents frequently bickered while navigating our trusty Volvo. They still do! My ex and I had horrible fights whenever we got lost. Once we got lost in Canada on the way home from Quebec City. Surrounded by six-foot high cornfields, my ex screaming out me, I felt trapped and wanted to hurl myself out of the passenger seat to end my misery.
My Beau has helped me heal from trauma. The first time I messed up navigating, and we got lost on the way to a yoga retreat, I told him. Rather than screaming at me, he laughed and turned the car around. But clearly I still have work to do.
In that moment lost on VT-100 with no Internet access, my life felt like an utter mess. The skin crawling sensation coupled with the self-loathing tapes surfaced like Gage Creed in Steven King’s Pet Sematary.
“You’re such an idiot, you can’t do anything right, the whole day and your life are ruined….” the voice said.
Beau tried to calm me down. He smiled and said: “Am I upset? We’re having fun, it’s an adventure.”
Fortunately, I had written down the phone number for the tubing place. I called and a woman told me: “We’re on 902 Route VT-100 in Stockbridge. Look for the Vermont Tubing sign and a white van.”
Hard to admit, I’ve been practicing, teaching, writing about and researching Mindful Self-compassion for almost a decade, and there I was beating myself up AGAIN. Plus, I’m a Reiki Master and follow the Five Reiki Precepts – guidelines to achieve peace and happiness and balance body, mind and spirit. One of the five is: “Just for today I will let go of anger,” this includes being angry with yourself!
It was in that moment that I realized the GPS device had F’d up. She had directed us to 902 VT-100 in Pittsfield, not Stockbridge. I had done NOTHING wrong, yet my go to response was to blame and criticize myself up.
Yes, even as I write this I’m aware that I am beating myself up for beating myself up. Hand on heart, I remind myself. Breathe and trade self-loathing for self-love.
We turned around and headed back towards the tubing place we’d already passed which was actually our destination. Thirty minutes later, butt in tube the tension of the day washed away. As I floated down the lazy river rocked by the healing power of nature; picking up river rocks and gazing at the sky, I set an Independence Day intention to free myself from the toxic self-judgments, perfectionism and negative self-talk that have plagued me for years.
Drifting down the river, I realized three things. 1) I am responsible for the negative energy that I generate 2) That toxic energy creates stress, elevates cortisol levels and blocks joy and happiness 3) I have the ability to get the inner bitch off my back… and so do you.
If you struggle with perfectionism and frequently beat yourself up when things go wrong, you’re not alone. All the women that I have worked with at midlife have the same demon on their backs especially those of us born between 1962 and 1969.
We share women’s midlife issues and women’s midlife experiences including: Empty nest, caring for aging parents and the hot flashes and hormone surges triggered by menopause.
Astrologically we were born when Uranus was in Virgo, which means that while we are creative and intuitive, we tend to be perfectionists and control freaks. Midlifers born in these years can have trouble going with the flow especially when things go wrong or we don’t have a clear path or vision. Getting lost may trigger confusion or insecurity. Rather than looking for help we attack ourselves because things aren’t going as planned and we don’t feel like we’re good enough.
The self-critical part of us provides an illusion of control. When things don’t go our way, rather than learning from our mistakes and adjusting we tell ourselves, “If I had just tried harder I could have been perfect.” In a weird way we also use self-criticism to protect us from being criticized. We believe if we beat ourselves up first we’ll beat others to the punch.
That self-criticism is basically the internalized voice of early caregivers that told us who to be and how to behave in order to be loved, cared for and accepted. As adults we continue to listen to the voice because we think we need it to motivate us to improve. Ironically, self-criticism undermines motivation because it generates fight-or-flight, which instead of revving us up narrows or vision and shuts us down.
The worst thing about the self-flagellation is that no matter how successful you are or how much you achieve you still lack self-acceptance and are plagued by brutal negative self talk. Sure on the outside your life may look great, but you feel like you are one step away from failing or making a mistake. The disconnect between how you feel on the outside and how you feel within keeps you stuck, stressed and overwhelmed, afraid to make the changes that lead to fulfillment, peace and balance that you are ultimately seeking. Sound familiar?
If you want to be happy, create a life you love and make your next chapter your best chapter you have to transform your mind. The old neural programs that generate toxic judgments need to be replaced by fresh, healthy thought patterns.
How do you do it? Forget self-esteem and try self-compassion. Let the self-criticism go and cultivate your self-compassionate voice. Not only will you feel more joyful and energized, the new mindset will help you connect with your strengths, passions and the inner resources you need to move forward with confidence.
Why does developing self-compassion work? Research on self-compassion shows that it reduces painful feelings like shame, isolation and anger that self-criticism triggers.
Learning to love and care for yourself the way you would a good friend is the cure for midlife crisis. Yes, it takes time and practice, but the more you cultivate self-compassion the more familiar it will feel and the easier it will be to remember to treat yourself kindly whenever you are about to hit your default mode button and beat yourself up again.
Not sure where or how to start practicing self-compassion? Grab a journal and try the exercise below from the Mindful Self-compassion program developed by Chris Germer and Kristen Neff. Studies show it can help you feel happier and less depressed.
COMPASSIONATE LETTER TO MYSELF
1. Think of something that tends to make you feel bad about yourself (an unhealthy habit, your appearance, relational conflict, etc.)
2. Now imagine you have a friend who is unconditionally wise, loving and compassionate. This friend sees all your strengths and weaknesses even what you dislike about yourself. This friend recognizes the limits of human nature, and is kind, accepting, and forgiving.
Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. What would this friend say to you from the perspective of unlimited compassion? And if you think this friend would suggest possible changes you should make, how might these suggestions embody feelings of care, encouragement, and support?
Alternatively: Write a letter from the perspective of your own compassionate self. This part of you would like to help you because he or she cares deeply about you. The intention behind your compassionate self is “I love you and I don’t want you to suffer.”
3. After writing the letter, put it away for a little while. Then come back to it and read it again. Really let the words sink in. Feel the compassion as it pours into you, soothing and comforting you. Love, connection and acceptance are your birthright. To claim them you need only look within yourself.