For a couple years in my mid thirties, I thought I had it all – everything that I understood to mean success, accomplishment, and external happiness. Lots of things looked good on the outside: I was a junior partner at a growing engineering firm and we had a nice house in a great neighborhood. I felt like I could push through anything. I was at the gym by 4am, in a custom tailored suit by 8am, and driving a nice car home by 6pm most days. I was keeping it together as far as I could tell and so that must mean everything was going right. Anyone that knew me beyond surface level could tell the rubber wasn’t quite on the road but the story I told myself was that it was all good.
Fast forward to early 2021 when I abruptly went on FMLA for 12 weeks for an emergency outpatient intensive mental health treatment program. Shortly after beginning the program, I was clinically diagnosed with severe depression, severe anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. Around this time, I started to examine my childhood more closely. Could it be that something environmental or systemic from my childhood was still affecting me all these years later? And if so, was it possible that it had played a role in my struggle with mental health as an adult?
An Inner Critic vs An Inner Coach
Matter of factly: the way I was raised was heavy on fear and shame as a parenting tool. There’s no blame here from me and I don’t see it as my parents’ fault. Fear and shame had been intricately tied to survival in each family because there were legitimate threats to well-being and it was necessary for the family for the kids to fall in line. Realizing how fear and shame had been passed on from parents to child gave me a lot of empathy for my parents and a better understanding for how each generation did a little better than the one before.
I have distinct memories of disciplinary interactions with both of my parents where fear and shame were the main techniques used. I was a really sensitive kid and both of these methods hit me really hard. I learned quickly what to do and not do so that I wouldn’t be punished or shamed. When I was about four years old, we lived in Germany and I went to a pre-kindergarten class. I took a shuttle to and from school and one time on the way home, I wet my pants on the shuttle. I had tried so hard not to and I was really distraught, and I knew it wasn’t OK. When my mom picked me up from the shuttle and saw what had happened, she got really angry with me.
What I remember most about the interaction was how I felt the whole time she was shaming me — I felt bad, worthless, and weak. Her anger at me and what I had done made it very clear that I had seriously messed up and that I needed to be berated and punished because of it. I felt so alone and so confused. I was a disappointment. Instead of being told this wasn’t a big deal and that it happens to basically every kid multiple times in their childhood, I got the opposite lesson. It was clear to me that I should have done something different. This was all my fault because I was a weak and bad kid who wanted to make bad choices and couldn’t do what I was supposed to do.
I have other vivid memories of the way my dad disciplined me around that age. Immediately after I did something that was not OK or after I disobeyed, he would get really angry really fast. The next part was usually a blur — a mix of angry shouting, hurrying over to me, grabbing me and picking me up fast and rushing me into another room, setting me down and yelling at me, spanking, and then finally I’d be left alone to cry it out. I remember feeling so small and him seeming so big and so angry when he lost his temper. I remember shaking with fear and being so afraid, many times. Looking back, I assume I must have also felt confused. This was the person who was supposed to take care of me — why was I afraid and trembling in front of them so often?
Just like with my mom, it was obvious to me that this was my fault and that I had brought this on myself. I took the message to heart and figured out what I needed to do to avoid discipline and punishment. The pain and fear and loneliness of those moments was too much for me to bear. I was ready to do anything so I wouldn’t have to feel those again. I was so hurt and so angry and all I wanted to do was scream and hit something — but obviously that would be another mistake and there would be more punishment — so I didn’t do either. I just buried it all. Outwardly, I was a good kid who did well in school, never got in trouble, and followed all the rules. I thought that was all that mattered.
Breakdown to Breakthrough
I used to believe things about myself that just seemed normal and obvious to me, but that I now attribute largely to repeated childhood moments of harsh discipline without warning. I believed that it was good to literally be afraid of authority figures — including my friends’ parents, my teachers, and every boss I’ve ever had. I believed that I was smart for obsessively following rules in every situation. I believed that I was constantly being watched and that I was always on thin ice, about to experience pain and fear because of a mistake that was my own fault. I believed that I was a disappointment. I believed that I was a threat to myself and my own well-being.
Underneath it all was a deep belief that at my core, I was bad, weak, and unworthy of love. The way this showed up physically was being constantly tense and finding it very hard to relax or let go, ever. I was continually evaluating what I was doing to determine if I had just made a mistake, if I was currently making a mistake, or if I was about to make a mistake. My assumption for all three was obviously that yes — I had, I actively was, and in the near future I would too. It was the only logical conclusion after so much evidence and how much my body remembered the fear and pain.
I would describe my parents’ discipline as generally being harsh, strict, unforgiving, and without compassion. That said, I firmly believe that they did the best they could with the resources they had and what they knew at the time. I know for a fact that the discipline that I got from them was a much lighter version of what they each got from their own parents. I believe there has been progress and growth from one generation to the next. I don’t believe that my childhood could have been any different or that it should have been any different.
The negative beliefs about myself did not go away on their own, instead they got stronger and more ingrained. My fear of authority figures got worse. I had an intense need for approval, or rather a need to avoid anything that looked like disapproval. I realized that I was constantly reading other people’s faces to look for any signs that they were unhappy with me. My constant worry about making mistakes led to obsessive-compulsive behavior in most areas of my life.
When I was diagnosed with severe depression and severe anxiety early this year, I wasn’t surprised. Both were glaringly obvious by that point as I had become non-functional both at work and outside of work. I couldn’t make out the words on my work laptop anymore and I couldn’t hold a conversation anymore. Every warning light on the proverbial dashboard was flashing and every emergency alarm was blaring. Looking back, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots. I attribute the majority of to what got me to that point to Brene Brown’s recipe for shame:
“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.”
All three of these were keystones of the way I had learned to survive since being a kid – to judge myself harshly, to keep my perceived flaws a secret, and to stay quiet about any struggles and figure it out on my own.
The OCD diagnosis somehow caught me off-guard because living in my own skin, I just couldn’t see it before then. Every person that I’ve mentioned it to since has seemed not the least bit surprised. Usually the response is something like “Well of course — that was obvious, right?” To me it wasn’t — it was just the way I had lived for most of my life.
The diagnosis of PTSD really took me by surprise. I’d never remotely considered it because I hadn’t been through any of the experiences that I usually associated with PTSD. I hadn’t served in a war, I hadn’t been robbed at gunpoint, and I hadn’t been assaulted. But when I started looking at the symptoms, it fit. Especially hypervigilance — constantly being on high alert and looking out for threats. That was definitely the bulk of my life experience basically every day.
Changing the Inner Dialogue
I’ll be damned if the shoe didn’t fit me perfectly. Through my own continual nurturing of things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD I had been keeping the same patterns from my childhood alive indefinitely. I was perpetuating the cycle of fear and pain that was modeled to me by my caregivers when I was a child and I had been totally oblivious to it.
I was relentlessly hard on myself in all situations without mercy or compassion. Nothing I did was good enough. If I succeeded at something, it was a fluke. If I failed at something, it reinforced my negative beliefs about myself. I was a huge jerk to myself and the way I talked to myself and acted toward myself was deeply judgmental and cruel.
During one session in the outpatient program this Spring, my therapist told me,
That was a tough thing to hear and I knew right away that it was true. So how could I do something different than what I had been doing for most of my life, especially when it had been subconscious all along?
The messages under my self-judgment and self-hate had been “I am not worthy of love. I am not safe. This is all because I’m fundamentally broken and not OK.” When I examined them under the light, it was so obvious that these weren’t true. But the footholds were strong and the pathways in my brain were well-worn.
As a child, I had needed consistently compassionate parenting from caregivers who were emotionally stable and available. At 38 years old, I was no longer a child and also neither of my parents were alive anymore. If someone was going to do this compassionate parenting, it was going to be me doing it to — and for — myself.
When I first tried on non-judgmental self-compassion, it felt fake. It felt forced and it felt like giving up, it felt like I was giving myself a pass that I didn’t deserve. I thought I needed to be tougher on myself, not to ease up. Saying things out loud to myself like “I’m doing my best and that’s OK” felt so uncomfortable.
But after I did it a couple times, I realized it was true. I was doing my best. My best looked different from moment to moment. Instead of feeling like I was giving up, it felt like I was finally getting what I had needed all those years before — for a parent to scoop me up, hold me tight, say they’re proud of me, tell me it’s all OK right now and it’s going to be OK in the future, and that they love me so much no matter what. And it turns out that parent was me.
It didn’t matter who the person was that actually told me these things, not externally anyway. And actually it wouldn’t even have worked if it was only me hearing these things from another person because I still wouldn’t have believed them. But by me beginning to say them to myself, and knowing that they’re actually all true, I started to take it easier on myself. I started believing the gentle, compassionate things I told myself.
Through all this, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I had been practicing compassionate parenting with our daughter. Somehow I had been able to compartmentalize my compassion — I believed that she deserved it while I clearly didn’t. After all, she was a kid who was still young, learning, and didn’t know any better. And I was an adult who definitely should have known better by this point, so the self-judgment was justified.
And then I noticed something. I firmly believed that she was one hundred percent worthy of compassionate parenting now at seven years old. There was no question about it and it was glaringly obvious. She was just a kid. I could see how much she needed it in order to learn and grow. Compassionate parenting was a need, a basic human right for her. So if that was true for her at age seven, wasn’t there a chance that had also been true for me before that age?
I realized that my parents were both wrong about me when I was a child and that what I had absorbed about myself from them was wrong too. It’s not just that they were wrong about me, they were wrong about themselves and about the world. It wasn’t their fault, it was the same thing that they were taught when they were young. Their parents’ generation needed to survive — and also needed the kids to survive — and that end justified the means. It was a matter of practicality.
I started recognizing that at any given moment, I didn’t need to be tense or hypervigilant. Now when I notice that I’m not being a compassionate self-parent, I:
- Take a slow, deep breath.
- Remind myself that there are no impending threats.
- Remind myself that I’m actually OK in any setting.
Through using these steps, the phrases “I’m OK right now” and “I’m doing my best right now” have both become mantras that I not only believe (which was shocking to me at first) but they actually encourage me and give me a different perspective than I’d had before.
As I write this today, this notion of unconditional self-compassion is very much still a practice — the same way that one might practice yoga or in the way that a doctor has a medical practice. It only works when it’s put into action. There are opportunities for it every day.
Sometimes it’s easy to be kind to myself, and sometimes it’s not. I’m letting go of decades of conditioning and self-denial. But overall, it gets a little easier each time. I’m the compassionate parent I’d been waiting for each time I was alone and crying as a child — and as an adult. I feel the truth of it in my bones a little more each time I act or speak compassionately toward myself. What seems obvious now is that I’m a human being doing the best I can in any situation and that might look different from one day to the next. And that’s OK. And through anything, I’m OK. I always have been, I just couldn’t see it yet.