In a competitive society where we have to manage complex networks of professional and intimate relationships, it can be hard to spend some time and think about how we are treating ourselves.
So, how are you treating yourself today? Have you been treating yourself fairly?
Under normal circumstances, perhaps we treat ourselves alright. But how about when we fail at something we know we could have easily accomplished? How does society influence how we cope with that failure, and how can we identify what a healthy relationship with ourselves looks like?
As individuals in a society, we are often set up with a series of expectations that can stem from multiple fields of life. Whether this is from the workplace, family, romantic relationships or academics, these expectations can be stressful and sometimes impossible to satisfy. So, with failure constantly knocking at the front door, do we have the necessary tools to confront itt and overcome it?
I was able to explore this topic with Dr. Scott Mcfee, a licensed clinical psychologist and instructor at Oregon State University.
Dr. Scott shared with me that oftentimes society sets up unrealistic targets that simply can’t be hit. So when people inevitably fail, they are left stranded with unresolved feelings of shame and humiliation.
“Lack of compassion towards self is one of the core features of what I’ve seen in my work. People will have these really critical thoughts of themselves and then they’ll maintain a cycle of feeling bad about those things,” Dr. Scott explained.
These feelings of shame are often elevated and maintained when we try to cope with them using self-destructive behaviors. Self-harm, substance use and self-depreciation, to name a few. In truth, these behaviors are a response to shame. They’re often behaviors that people may not want to talk about or even feel uncomfortable doing in the first place.
This becomes very clear within the context of the pandemic and recent social unrest. All of these factors contribute to demands that already fill our daily platter of expectations, and can become too difficult to manage with the unraveling of our support structures. Due to COVID-19, many relationships are physically blocked off, and therefore, starve us of a way to manage our issues.
In an interview with two highschoolers, Shaun Le and Chay Casas, they both independently mentioned a crucial part in how they managed failure–talking about it. They emphasized that communicating what happened and having a safe environment to do so helped tremendously in how they dealt with these feelings of shame.
In relation to what I discussed with Dr. Scott, it made sense.
“The only way to deal with shame is to talk about it. Oftentimes when we fail or feel bad about something we fear appearing weak and so it takes a particular type of strength to be vulnerable with people you care about.”
Being vulnerable in any circumstance is risky because it can make way for more hurt. However, this state of vulnerability is when the most value can also be derived. We are able to see ourselves at our most basic level, and interact with the world without a mask (no pun intended). It is a level of authenticity that can be “hard to nail down”, as described by Dr. Scott. But perhaps it’s not something that needs to be nailed down in the first place.
Reaching that point of authenticity towards self is a lifelong journey, and as long as we are traveling on its path, we will reap its benefits. We live in a fast-paced society with many points of instant gratification, and quick fixes for our issues. We need to understand there isn’t a fit-all when it comes to dealing with failure.
An interesting point that Dr. Scott mentioned to me was about the numerous types of therapies (over 500) and how the evidence points to them being equally effective. However, a definitive factor in determining if the treatment is successful is based on whether or not the client and therapist have a healthy relationship. It also means that there is a shared faith in the success of the treatment plan and that both believe in each other’s motives, as well as intentions.
This may sound far fetched, but sustaining the hope that we will one day climb from our pitfall is critical to recovery. It communicates our intent and allows us to understand if we are taking actions because we choose to or because we are forced to.
To sustain that faith in overcoming failure, forgiveness and moving closer to self-kindness is paramount. It can be difficult to be kind when we constantly trick ourselves into believing that we deserve the pain that we feel. It can also be hard to forgive yourself, especially when we are left alone with our flaws for a long time. But perhaps we have a misshapen understanding of what forgiveness is. Dr. Scott suggests that forgiveness is more akin to acceptance than a form of forgetfulness.
“Forgiveness is not wanting the past to be different, nor is it condoning it. It is saying that failure is in the past and it cannot be changed.”
No matter what we do, the failures that live in our past will never go away. So, what use is it in worrying about something that can no longer be controlled? What we can do, however, is sow better seeds for the future, and that starts with being more kind and compassionate to ourselves, and then the world around us.