Image by Dorothy Hardy (fl. 1891 – 1925) – Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline) (1909). Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. London : Harrap. This illustration facing page 170. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from http://www.archive.org/details/mythsofthenorsem00gueruoft Some simple image processing by User:Haukurth., PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20461968
Shame, self-criticism, perfectionism and lack of boundaries: these are the main themes in courses, phone calls, breakfasts, coffees, books, discussion boards and emails when I’m talking to women about their self-compassion practice. The four horsewomen of the apocalypse of the self, persistently attacking our sense of worth, our confidence in our place in the world, our willingness to take risks in the name of our creativity, and our stories about ourselves. These, my dears, need to be challenged, reckoned with, understood and eventually recruited so that we can stand in our own danger as wholehearted women (and men) who move through the world claiming our path and leaving the dust to settle behind us.
Shame is the fear of being abandoned by our community that is so strong that we literally feel as if we will die. I described shame like this at a self-compassion course I taught recently, and someone said that they knew the feeling of impending death, but didn’t realize it was shame. This is the first step – understanding how shame feels and why we have it. It’s a biological reaction that helps us survive by frightening us into staying with our group. Shame is about getting out alive, not happy. How do we reckon with shame? We learn to identify it; we acknowledge what it’s trying to do for us; we get some perspective on it; we speak it to others who can hold their own shame and ours; and we love ourselves up.
Self-criticism persistently tells us that we are not doing a good enough job. She may be the internalized voice of an early caregiver or he may be the voice of a coach or teacher who used threat, shame and punishment to motivate us. Self-criticism beats the external critics to the punch so that we can control our condemnation; it keeps us off our high horse so that we can’t be knocked off; it motivates us to do better so that we are beyond reproach; and it keeps us connected in dysfunctional relationships when connection means survival. How do we reckon with self-criticism? We notice that it is there; we get curious and ask it what it is feeling and what it is afraid of; we acknowledge its fears and its needs and invite it to think in a more liberating way about its role; and we invite in a wise, compassionate part of us to take care of it and take care of us.
Perfectionism is the belief that if I just do things in the right way I can control my environment; I can make the people around me happy and I can ensure my emotional and psychological survival. Perfectionism is a brutal master, as she is never satisfied. There is always another task to perfect; there is always another person to please; there is always another fear of disconnection to tend to. Perfectionism is an addiction designed to keep us from feeling shame, the mortal dread of being kicked out of the community. How do we reckon with perfectionism? By recognizing when it is taking hold; by understanding it’s connection to shame; by bringing pragmatism in and recognizing its impossible task; by loving up the inner child who believed if they could just please all the big people around them they would be safe.
The only way we can learn to set boundaries is when those around us model boundaries and when we learn to tune in to our own body’s wisdom. If no-one taught us boundaries when we were little, or they consistently stepped over what should be our boundaries, we can’t learn when to say yes and when to say no. If we were only ever expected to say yes, then we didn’t learn boundaries. The only way to understand our clear yes is to understand our clear no. Unclear boundaries lead to uncertainty in us and in those around us; send out mixed messages; compromise our safety and our sovereignty; and lead to injured instincts of self-protection along with discomfort with the natural response of anger. How do we reckon with unclear boundaries? We get in touch with our most important source of wisdom – our body – and we learn to listen to our intuition; we get clear on our no; we grieve our straying from our soul’s purpose and dream a new future of alignment; we practice in safe community; we lean on our soul family for inclusion when setting boundaries with others (including our blood family) might lead to exclusion.
Reckoning, Relationship, Restoration
After we’ve reckoned with the wild sisters of the apocalypse of the self and we’ve gotten to know them and their motivation, we can channel their fierce energy for good. Their energy can be transformed into the protection, righteous anger, creativity, fierce compassion, certainty, self-sovereignty, appropriateness, healed instincts, and self-love that is our birthright. We can learn to love every part of ourselves and every way the wild sisters have tried to take care of us. We can reconcile with ourselves and our past. We can forgive ourselves. We can move confidently into our future.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. Wait no longer. Claim what is yours to claim. Heal what is yours to heal. Love what is yours to love. No-one else is going to do this for you, but there is a community wanting to do this with you. Join the HeartWorks Thriving Woman Toolkit. Women, I’ll see you there. (Men, I’ll see you soon at the next fork in the road.)