Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people - the beauty within themselves. (Langston Hughes)
Two things that are hard for me to hear: compliments and criticism. Compliments are hard because I don't believe they are true. Criticism is hard because I don't want to believe it's true. I'm my own biggest critic and am really hard on myself: I don't give myself enough "credit" for my talents, skills, or good qualities and I focus too heavily on my flaws and failures. I churn and ruminate over every word I think I've misspoken and I fret over every little mistake I think I've made.
I am also overly sensitive to how I think other people see me. When I pick up on other people's facial expressions or a certain tone in their comments - especially when I don't understand the meaning behind them, I assume that they are directed toward me. If I feel a sudden distance from someone I was once close to, or sense someone's bad mood, the story I tell myself is that I must have done something wrong and I start replaying and over-analyzing my most recent exchanges with the person, trying to figure out what I may have done. When I don't know the answer to something, I make it up. And these stories, which may not actually be true, become my truth anyway and change how I interact with the other.
This is part of my daily struggle with being a sensitive introvert. I am in my head a lot, I overthink and over-analyze everything, and I take pretty much everything too personally. Even though I enjoy my time alone, I still have a deep need to feel connected to others. I want to be appreciated and liked, and any criticism or judgment - perceived or real - is a huge blow.
Part of my journey has been to change my relationship to criticism, and there are two major lessons I've learned so far. One is that a lot of the feedback we receive from others isn't really about us at all. It's about the other person and their needs, preferences or expectations. They want us to behave a certain way and when we don't, they give us feedback about how we need to change and conform to their wishes. When we receive this kind of feedback, we need to decide if there is any truth to what they are saying, and if it aligns to something that *we* want to change - not to appease the other person, but to evolve into our best self. If there's no truth to the feedback then we need to be comfortable with letting it go.
The second thing I've learned about feedback is: that which hurts the most *always* has some truth to it, even if I can't see it yet. This kind of feedback supports something I already believe to be true about myself, even if I'm unaware of it. Someone once told me that everything had to be my way all the time, that I left no room for people to do things their own way. This feedback hurt. A lot. I emphatically denied it and tried to prove how wrong the individual was. Only to realize later how true the feedback had been.
In addition to changing my relationship to feedback, the other part of my journey has been learning to see not just my flaws, but the beauty and the good within myself too. I am learning to acknowledge and appreciate my own good qualities, and to reframe my unique nuances as gifts. There are a lot of challenges that come with being a sensitive introvert, but there are a lot of benefits to it as well, many of which I'm really just starting to understand and appreciate. Instead of always striving for acceptance from others, I am learning to accept myself - flaws and all. I'm not perfect and I never will be because perfection isn't real. I'm learning to be more compassionate with myself when I say the wrong thing or make a mistake. If I feel like I need to apologize to someone for something I said or did, I apologize to the other and then I forgive myself.
These new ways of thinking and behaving don't happen overnight and require regular, ongoing practice. But one thing that has really helped me with all of this unlearning and relearning has been a consistent use of healthy reflective practices such as journalling. In my journal, I explore the feedback I receive, my reaction to it, and whether or not there is any truth to it. I get curious about other times I may have received the feedback, or look for other examples of situations where I exhibited the behavior in question. Through this examination of my behavior, I can make a decision whether or not it's anything I want or need to change, and why.
I've also been using my journal to explore my good qualities, to make note of when I observe them in action or when someone offered a compliment that was true. I also use my journal to support my self-appreciation, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness practices and inquiries. I once asked myself in my journal: "What do I still need to forgive myself for?" I filled pages and pages with examples of grudges I was still holding against myself, and I made the decision to let them go.
My journal has been a wonderful tool for increasing my self-understanding and self-awareness and has been instrumental to my personal growth. My journal is a safe space. It's the one place I know I can consistently show up and be myself. I don't have to worry about what others think and I don't have to be careful about what I say. I can just let my thoughts, feelings, and emotions spill all over the page without feeling like I need to censor anything. And often through this raw, unfiltered writing, a new truth starts to emerge. A truth that acknowledges that I have flaws and I make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but these flaws and mistakes alone do not define who I am. The truth of who I am goes so much deeper and I'm eager to see what I have yet to discover.
The universe is always sending us signs about our callings and our path. We are being invited to grow beyond our limits and evolve into our highest potential. The messages and clues can show up anywhere. But do we notice them?
I love being surprised by the discovery of hearts where I least expect them. Whenever I find one, such as on this painted rock lying along the sidewalk, it reminds me that my purpose in this life involves learning to truly love. My journey has taken me through some challenging experiences to show me all the ways I have been blocking love from flowing into and through my life.
I'm a sensitive introvert, so I spend a lot of time in my head, telling myself stories about how unlovable I am. I'm also a recovering over-achiever and people pleaser because I believed the only way to receive love was to prove how good I was, and that I deserved it.
Through my life experiences, it's been made very clear to me that I've not been good about loving myself. And because I'm not good about loving myself, I'm also not good at loving others, or accepting love from others. The past few years, I've been learning and practicing the art of self-love.
It's not been easy practice for me. There are a lot of old wounds that have needed to be healed. I have been learning how to forgive myself for all the wrongs I have done. I have been learning self-compassion and how to stop beating myself up for every mistake. I have been learning to make self-care a priority and caring for all aspects of my wellbeing. I have been exploring the old beliefs and stories about my lovability, and I'm still working to rewrite them. None of these lessons have been easy.
But as difficult as it's been, it's been equally rewarding. Because breaking my heart open to expose all the hurt and wounds and brokenness inside has allowed my heart to finally begin the healing process, which is creating space for love to flow in. 💜
I have done a lot of personal work on forgiveness over the years and thought I had forgiven everyone I needed to forgive. But I recently realized I was still holding on to some old hurts and resentments and carrying a lot of old emotional baggage. Clinging to these had created a lot of internal stress, agitation and even anger.
One evening I was doing some self-examination work in my journal. I had been doing a lot of reading on forgiveness and wanted to connect what I had been reading with work I had been doing with my wounded child and victim archetypes. I centered myself and wrote at the top of a page "Whom do I still need to forgive?" I closed my eyes and waited. It wasn't long before I filled up 3/4 of the page with people who had in some way violated my boundaries and/or impacted my self-esteem, self-worth, or self-image. As a result of my encounters with these individuals, I felt unsafe, rejected, and unloved.
For a long time I believed that holding on to my grudges was a way to get back at the people who hurt me. There was no valid excuse or reason for their behavior - they did me wrong, so why should I forgive them? What I couldn't see was that by choosing not to forgive the people who hurt me, it was not them I was hurting. It was me. I was the one who was carrying around the weight of my anger and resentment; I was the one who was suffering.
It has taken me years to understand that I couldn't move beyond my painful past until I freely chose forgiveness. Carrying these old wounds around for so long constricted and hardened my heart, which also blocked the flow of unconditional love. Finally choosing to do the necessary work of releasing my old resentments, grievances, and anger, I've started the process of healing my heart.
We may feel resistant to the idea of forgiveness, or feel like it would be impossible to forgive someone who has hurt us. But we are all human. We have all made mistakes. We have all been hurt just as we have hurt others. We have all been in situations where we need do the forgiving, just as we've all been the one who needs to be forgiven. As much as I needed to forgive others for what they had done to me, I suspected that I was also being weighed down by what I had done to other people. I explored this idea in my journal too, asking "Who have I harmed?"
True forgiveness is not easy, quick, or surface-level; it's not as simple as saying that we forgive someone. In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, Jack Kornfield wrote that forgiveness is a process which may include grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain. For some of us, the process of forgiveness is slow, deep work because we are peeling back layers of hurt that have been accumulating for years. Through the process, we need to acknowledge what happened, how we felt about what happened, and the hurt and suffering that resulted. We may find that we need to go through the process multiple times to move from anger to heart-based forgiveness. It may be helpful to use a ritual or other exercise to help us forgive and let go of the past.
We can use any number of writing exercises. No matter which we choose, we should write about what happened, how we felt about what happened, how it affected us and how we suffered. In The Book of Forgiving, Desmund Tutu and Mpho Tutu suggest that we write about what we lost through the experience, such as trust, safety, dignity, innocence, a friend, or something else we cherished. We can write what we wish we could say to the person who harmed us. We might write from their perspective too, to understand what may have led to their actions or what they might say back to us. To help us release the pain of the past, we could also explore how the situation has made us stronger or otherwise helped us.
We can explore these ideas in our journal, or we can write our experience as a story or in a letter to the person who harmed us. If we think we want to send the letter, we may need to write several versions of it first so that when we send it, it's coming from a place of true forgiveness, not anger or blame.
Regardless of how we decide to write about our experience, Tutu and Tutu wrote that at some point, we need to actually move into the step of granting forgiveness. This may include praying for or sending blessings to the people who have hurt us.
Once we have fully processed the event and our feelings about it, we might choose to speak it out loud. We could share our experience and insights with someone we trust, who will be supportive and listen such as a confidant, a close friend, a therapist or a spiritual guide.
In our forgiveness journey, we also need to forgive our self for things we did or didn't do, things we said or didn't say, how we harmed others, and our role in the situations with those who harmed us. We need to review, acknowledge, and take responsibility for our wrongdoings and mistakes. The final question I explored that night in my journal was "What do I still need to forgive myself for?" I filled pages with examples from both the recent and distant past.
It can be incredibly difficult to forgive and doing so does not change our past; we can't undo what's been done. But we can choose to forgive anyway. We can choose a new future. When we choose to forgive, we don't do it for the benefit of the other; we do it for our own wellbeing; we do it to heal and open our heart.
Whom do you still need to forgive?
Who have you harmed?
For what do you need to forgive yourself?
Our flaws do not define who we are
Periodically, I revisit my old journals to see where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and to discover patterns related to my personal and spiritual growth (or lack thereof). In a recent review, I noticed an alarming trend: how many times I wrote about the ways I failed at something. Pages were filled with what I did wrong, what I didn’t do but should have, how I should have behaved differently, and countless other ways I let myself down. Too many sentences began with “Why can’t I just…” or “Why do I always…”
And these are just the thoughts that made it onto paper. Countless other self-defeating thoughts have swirled beyond my conscious awareness. As a sensitive introvert, I am indeed in my head a lot. I process everything that happens very deeply. A stressful morning can send me deep into retreat mode - I just want to hide out and avoid all interaction with the world. I find it hard to function when I am overwhelmed, and it can take hours or sometimes days to recover from these overwhelming events or situations. I take things too personally, over-think, over-plan, ruminate, and worry. And when my behavior and choices don’t align to my own impossibly high standards for myself, I beat myself up. A lot.
When our thoughts fill up mostly or even entirely with self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation, we don’t learn. We don’t change. And we don’t grow. The more we bully ourselves for our behavior and our choices, the more we solidify unhealthy patterns that occur out of habit and become our default and stall our personal and spiritual growth.
So, what do we do? The first thing we need to do is to notice when we are swirling in self-judgment or self-criticism. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. I do find journaling incredibly helpful for this. When I put my thoughts down on paper, it becomes so much easier to see the patterns in my behavior. (If journaling is not your thing, I recommend you find another tool to support your self-observation and self-reflection practices.)
Throughout the day, as soon as I notice myself feeling overwhelmed or stuck or stressed, or if I notice that I feel like hiding out or escaping from something (or someone), I stop and reflect on what’s happening. I try to “catch myself in the act,” so I can pay attention to the voices running wild inside my head. Sometimes it’s easier to reflect on these situations the next morning.
But whenever you choose to do it, to move through and out of self-criticism, I have found it helpful to examine my self-defeating comments and explore self-reflective questions, such as:
These types of questions shift us out of self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation into self-compassion, self-kindness, self-forgiveness, self-care, and self-love. Ultimately, they increase our self-awareness and contribute to our personal and spiritual growth.
Our journal is indeed a safe place to let it all out. I can write anything I want in my journal - what I did, how I’m feeling about something, and what I don’t want to repeat in the future. So yes, let it all hang out. Explore it, examine it, learn from it. And then release it. Let it all go. Don’t get stuck in the negative stories about yourself.
We are all human. We all mess up. It’s a normal part of life. But our flaws do not define who we are. Every choice we have made - even the “negative” ones, have gotten us to this exact moment in our life. We move through life one choice at a time and along the way we are learning valuable lessons about ourselves. Every situation presents us a choice about how to respond and how to move forward. We may not always choose well, but we can always choose again.
I’m a lifelong learner; my need to grow and evolve is an important part of my being. I’m always striving to become the best version of me that I can be. Sometimes I fail miserably and other times, I make great leaps of transformation.
In the past, my efforts have consistently been self-improvement projects – during which I tried with all my might to change myself to meet others’ needs or expectations. My focus was on fixing my inadequacies. I thought I had to change who I was or how I behaved to please other people (so that I’d be accepted and liked). I would always fail miserably at these efforts because I would set a goal for the change without being clear on why I was making the change. I would create a self-development checklist of all the “actions” I needed to take and I’d attack the project with great vigor - at first. When I acted in a way that was opposite of the change I was trying to make, I’d beat myself up. I’d expect quick results; so when the quick fixes didn’t work, I’d scrap the whole project.
No matter how much we want to make a change in our attitude, our behavior, or our ways of thinking, the process is still difficult. We easily get stuck in our old habits, swirl in our fear-based beliefs, and get trapped in our outdated (and often inaccurate) patterns of thinking. When we’re stuck here, we can’t see or understand why the change isn’t happening. We want the change, we want to become a better person, but we critically judge and berate ourselves for not being able to make the shift. Or we excuse or rationalize it away – telling ourselves we’re just wired this way so why bother trying to change?
I’ve come to see that personal growth, at its core, is not about fixing our inadequacies. True personal growth, real transformation, is about slowly uncovering and evolving into the person that we already are – at the deepest level of our soul. Personal transformation is about letting go of the false parts of ourselves that no longer fit: the masks we wear to try to please or fit in with others, the self-protective behaviors we’ve been learning our whole life, and the traits we lean on when we feel like it’s not enough to just be who we are.
Real transformation is less about striving to become someone we think we’re supposed to be and more about relaxing away and releasing the parts of us that no longer fit so that our true selves can emerge. This process takes time; we’ve been building our personas for our whole lives so expecting them to change overnight is not realistic.
There are three things I’ve learned to be true about personal growth:
When we keep these three truths in mind, it creates an environment that supports transformation. We view the whole process more realistically and we find comfort in knowing that we get more than one shot at it. Personal transformation is not often something than happens in a few months; it can take a lifetime to evolve into the person we were created to be. Personal transformation is rarely about learning new behaviors. It involves unlearning our old ways of being, letting go of our fear-based beliefs, and relaxing old habits and patterns.
Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair. (Rick Warren)
When you find yourself in the valleys of despair, remember to give yourself grace and forgiveness. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to make an immediate change. And when you find yourself on a mountaintop, remember to acknowledge your effort, and to celebrate!
A common definition of compassion is having a desire to help someone who is suffering, which includes pain, distress, and hardship. We all experience suffering at some point in our lives. When people are hurting on the inside, we may see it in their behavior. When we encounter an “unloving” or “unkind” person, our natural impulse may be to respond in kind. But if we see them as someone who is suffering in some way and we feel moved by their pain, a natural desire to help emerges. Choose to extend them compassion and love instead of adding to their suffering. The people who act the most unloving may be the ones who most need to receive love.
Transforming our relationships begins with us. Through compassion, we are practicing presence, acceptance and forgiveness and we leave people feeling noticed, accepted, and embraced. This is where the miracle occurs. As we extend compassion to others, we may notice a shift within ourselves; we may feel more connected, more loving, and more joyful. Another miracle occurs. Our offerings of grace, love, and kindness may be mighty or they may be small. But even the smallest offerings can have a big impact on the people in our lives, and we may never know how our small acts of caring changes the trajectory of someone’s day.
What small offering can you make today to help another feel loved?