Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Years ago my sister said this to me during a time I was struggling with a boss who was not very kind to me. This person was not compassionate, nasty, and was never satisfied by anything anyone did. “Imagine how he must feel about himself,” she said. “We treat others as we treat ourselves.”
At that point in my life and in my relationship with this person I was not able to understand the power of that statement. It took many years (and a lot of therapy) for me to finally accept this fundamental truth.
I have not always been kind to myself. In fact, I have always been my harshest critic. My personal bar of achievement has at times been so high you would need a telescope to see it. I viewed mistakes as something people did because there were not paying close enough attention. And failure was not an option. Viewing my past through this harsh lense, I often blamed myself for not knowing better, for not being more adept at preventing hurtful things from happening to me. I took the notion of personal responsibility to an extreme. I believed everything was in my power to control, so any hurt or injury was my own damn fault.
And yet, I also believed I was capable of achieving anything if I worked hard enough and was clear in my intention. I thought the secret to my success was a result of my high bar, critical judgment and unreasonable sense of personal responsibility.
As a manager, I employed this approach to my staff. I assumed everyone had a bar as high as mine and was not willing to settle for anything short of perfection. I could not understand how someone could give me a document that was misspelled or without page numbering and tell me it was their best work. At times, instead of stepping back and trying to see it from their point of view, I handled these transgressions with the same harsh criticism I applied to myself.
This did not seem unreasonable to me, why wouldn’t I be as hard on someone as I was on myself (in fact, I believed I could never be as hard on a colleague or friend as I was with myself – this was how I justified it.)
By the time I hit my forties I started to feel the effects of my self-judgment. It was exhausting to always have to hit a home run, to work harder than everyone else and still not be satisfied, to never, ever, allow yourself to fail or make a mistake and be okay with it.
As I began to work through the causes of these feelings, my perspective on my own life and self slowly started to shift. I began to see how important it is to fail, how much freedom there is in allowing yourself to be human, and how forgiving yourself is the greatest thing you can ever do.
And, as I began to make small changes in my own approach, I noticed how many of my relationships started to shift as well. As a manager, I got better at being able to tell the difference between my personal expectation and what was good work by “normal” standards.
Perhaps my greatest achievement was my ability to give voice my own struggle. I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is just admit you are a hard ass and tell the truth about how tough you can be on yourself and others. And, when you go too far, apologize and move forward.
There is no downside to loving yourself more deeply, no excuse not to learn how. The love we give ourselves just ripples out into the world in the way we act, the deeds we do and the intentions we set. Let us treat others the way we treat ourselves and let that be with love and compassion.