Yesterday, at a child’s 4th birthday party with red, blue and yellow balloons floating on the ceiling, big slices of chocolate cake on plates, piles of presents and 14 rambunctious children chasing each other around the kitchen, the mother of the birthday boy asked me to hold her 8-month old baby girl. We played pat-a-cake and peekaboo, and I revelled in the innocence of this small gopher-cheeked human being.
In the midst of the noise and chaos, she struggled to stay awake. I rocked back and forth, hummed a tuneless melody in the comforting way that I used when my own children were small. She eventually succumbed to sleep as a puppy does, simply closing her heavy eyelids and drifting off into dreamland.
While I felt grateful for this opportunity to revisit the world of little kids, I couldn’t help but compare it to the self-compassion work I’m engaged in myself at the mature age of 66 years. Just a few days ago, I talked with a supportive friend, and I told her about one of my Shadow Selves, “Critical Carla” who yammers at me when I make mistakes. “You don’t measure up!” “You’re a failure!” When Carla speaks to me like that, I become anxious and stressed and I see only my flaws.
Intellectually, I understand the purpose of Carla’s tirades. She’s trying to motivate me by correcting me so I’m safe from the rejection and disconnection that I fear will come with disappointing others and myself. I don’t necessarily feel her protection. Instead, I feel hurt and defensive instead of determined to be my best self. Worst of all, I feel alone.
When I make big mistakes, Critical Carla’s reactions can wreck havoc in my life. When she compares me to others whose lives seem idyllic and perfect, when she castigates me for my disorganized housekeeping skills, my frustration with my husband, my inability to balance my cheque book, or any other behaviour in which I feel “not good enough,” I feel powerless to stop her until I listen carefully and acknowledge her reason for protecting me.
Until I become mindful, the innocent child inside me continues to feel ashamed. She is, as self-compassion researcher Kirsten Neff says, a “shame-baby.” This baby needs my compassion and comfort whether it is warmth and reassurance, rocking, or whispers that say, “You’re okay just the way you are.” She needs to feel safe with me, that she is not alone, and that all human beings have moments when they feel flawed and imperfect. I can put my hand over her heart or cup her face so she feels rest easy in my arms.