Midlife Guidepost 3: What Living with Social Anxiety Taught Me About Self-Compassion

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‘Learning to embrace yourself and your imperfections gives you the resilience needed to thrive’ –Kristin Neff

To the outside world, I seemed to have it all together. I lived adventurously, achieved materially, and was held up among my family as an example of accomplishment. It’s a lot to constantly live up to, especially when imposter syndrome lurked like a monster in the dark taunting you with the lie that you’ll never be good enough.

If you’ve read my midlife story you know where and why I got stuck on perfectionism – a need to do everything right, proving my capability and worth. My low self-concept caused me to play safe, afraid to try new things unless I could predict a successful outcome.  Living with such self-imposed limitations kept me from stepping into my full potential beyond the external decorations others saw and regarded as ‘success’. Beneath all that fluff Parker Palmer echoed what I felt more eloquently than I can articulate at this moment:

‘The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?’ (LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK).

The result of striving for perfectionism within myself, external achievements, and the many roles I fill as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend subconsciously spilt over into those relationships. Perfectionism was my yardstick for life and anything less caused me to cringe with shame in the repeating life refrain ‘you’re not good enough’.

When I awakened to midlife and started reflecting on my earlier life seasons and the pivotal experiences that shaped me, new truths and insights emerged. Once I understood where that refrain originated, I decided enough was enough. I intentionally started excavating that taunting untruth from the dark crevices weaved in my subconscious beliefs and started stepping into a renewed, redeemed identity fragranced with unconditional love and inherent self-worth.

But there was something else too that helped me shift from self-criticism and unrealistic expectations and perfectionism to gentler self-acceptance. It’s a lesson my daughter taught me about self-compassion.

‘Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering’Definitions.net

Kristin Neff, a developmental psychologist and a pioneer in the field of self-compassion wrote about failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection “whether we’re living up to our ideals in the moment, or failing miserably, we can relate to ourselves with kindness and concern. Rather than managing our self-image so that it is always palatable, self-compassion honours the fact that all human beings have both strengths and weaknesses.” Neff cites research that links self-compassion to higher levels of happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, and decreased anxiety, depression, rumination, and fear of failure.

For someone driven to prove their worth and capability as a human being, isn’t the idea of developing such self-compassion both welcome and liberating? That is, to have the freedom to allow ourselves to sometimes fail and still feel worthy. This was a foreign concept to me until my child showed me how this is possible.

My daughter had just started grade school and there was unease that ‘something was wrong’ with her. She didn’t speak to anyone at school nor did she participate in class activities. She stood back timidly watching her classmates run and play, eagerly raising their hands to answer questions and speak their young minds.  There were concerns that she ‘didn’t fit in’ with the new environment and that perhaps that particular school was ‘not the right place’ for her. 

After an evaluation from relevant professionals, she was diagnosed with social anxiety that presented in early life with selective mutism. Selective mutism is defined as a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as in school or in unfamiliar crowded social environments. We didn’t notice this sooner because in a comfortable, familiar environment the symptoms are not apparent. The child we knew at home was the polar opposite of the way she presented at school.  

I wish I can say that once we identified the problem, we were able to quickly fix it and file it away as one more ‘accomplishment’. But this was not the case. 

How do I, a self-driven perfectionist when it comes to my own challenges and achievements and striving to live up to others’ expectations, respond to my child whose journey ahead was rife with challenges and setbacks that promised to be anything but ‘perfect’?

  • Do I push, pressure, shame and chastise her when she sometimes fails and has to re-do things that seem to come more easily to others? Or, do I offer her compassion, patience and understanding?
  • Do I make her feel like she’s a failure because she isn’t like her peers in all respects? Or do I instil the truth that she is inherently worthy and encourage her to embrace her uniqueness and uncover her strengths and passions?
  • Do I insist she strives to conform to the mainstream expectations or provide her with the kind of support she needs to grow inner trust in herself and her social environment?

Neff echoes the latter approach, and defines self-compassion as having three components that interplay to create a self-compassionate frame of mind:

  1. Self-kindness versus self-judgment, where self-kindness involves being caring and understanding, soothing and comforting oneself instead of being harshly critical or judgmental.
  2. A sense of common humanity versus isolation with a view that all humans are imperfect, fail and will make mistakes.
  3. Mindfulness versus over-identification involves a mindful awareness of one’s present moment in a clear, balanced manner that neither ignores nor obsesses about aspects we don’t like about ourselves.

My daughter has long moved on from her formative years, forged her way through matric and is currently pursuing tertiary studies. She’s found creative ways to express her individuality through digital art, fashion and hobbies. She isn’t a cookie-cutter child who fits the mainstream boxes and labels. As she aged and gained a clearer understanding of the challenges and developed her voice she was able to help her family figure out ways to best support her. 

Today, she still lives with social anxiety. She’s learned to communicate with others at a pace that she can manage and can clearly express her needs. She carefully considers social settings to suit her needs and has built a small inner circle around her that loves, accepts, and supports her consistently. Ironically, this includes a few friends that originated in her early educational environment where her challenges were first noticed.

She approaches high-stress situations, like writing an exam, or more recently, taking her driver’s test with patience and self-compassion as these are things that take her a few tries to get through, but eventually, she does.

Parker Palmer also writes:

‘Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’

In her quieter inner world, my daughter seems to understand this and is listening to her life better than I’d been listening to mine.  Today, she quietly and gently flits through life by the beat of her own drum.  She allows herself to feel disappointment, and joy – especially joy. She celebrates her small victories as much as the bigger ones.  She cries when she fails but then valiantly picks herself up and tries once, twice or three times more. She’s developed a kind of courage and resilience through her setbacks that still astounds me.

I’m in awe of how brave and open she is to embracing life. She dreams big and pursues her dreams, one small step at a time. She thinks things through carefully in an unrushed way, preparing herself that the road to realising her aspirations will be unconventional but possible.  She’s accepted herself as she is, uncovering what she’s capable of, and is developing her passions and life interests slowly, at her own pace. As she embraces her life in all its unique facets, she has learned to practice self-compassion.

God, in His mysterious ways, chose me to parent this beautiful, sensitive human and it’s not because I believe I’m the ideal person to love, nurture and help shape her all she was innately created to be and do in this world. I sometimes wonder if part of why God entrusted her to me and our small family is because she would teach us more than we could ever teach her, not the least of which is has been the value of self-compassion.

Neff notes that people who lack self-compassion as I’ve done for most of my life, are prone to lower feelings of self-worth because we are so self-critical and hard on ourselves. Contrastingly, those, like my daughter, with higher levels of self-compassion also have higher feelings of self-worth because they’re kinder and more self-accepting.

Self-compassion can be particularly salient in midlife when taking stock of one’s life, choices, mistakes and regrets about how you’ve dealt with challenges and complex relationships. It’s easy to self-criticise, chastise, and feel shame for our perceived failures.

In earlier life seasons I functioned on autopilot without deeper self-awareness about my unconscious driving forces. I’m surprised that while I was able to hold space for her as she learned to find her way self-compassionately, I wasn’t able to do the same in my approach to life. Now with deeper self-awareness of the value of self-compassion and having seen my daughter apply it in her life, perhaps I can take a page from her book. Perhaps I can pivot away from false perfectionism and self-criticism and look back with grace and self-forgiveness while acknowledging mistakes and being willing to grow and make necessary changes as I navigate midlife.

Neff emphasises that people with higher levels of self-compassion are linked to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity, connectedness and lower feelings of anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failing. These are elements that can help one thrive in midlife both internally and in relation to others.

Do you manage your imperfections, ‘flaws’ or limitations with self-chastisement, inner criticism and self-shame? Or do you allow yourself to fail with grace and still feel valued and worthy? Because if you can learn to hold space within yourself to be imperfect, this will can spill over into your relationships where you will offer the same sentiment of self-compassion to someone else.

Finally, the saying rings true, we are never too old to learn, or change!

Neff. K.D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5/1 (2011): 1–12, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x

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