I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings. I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half. Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons? That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day. I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off. Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day. Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.
I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter. They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!” I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame. You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake. Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.
I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:
Good, Better, Best
Never let it rest
Until your Good is Better and
Your Better is Best
I hate that rhyme. On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people. Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better? These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough. Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.
There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves. However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment. The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system. It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day. I NEED to look great EVERY day”. We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive. We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc. In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best. The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something. We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.
So, where do shame and joy fit in? Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay. The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay. Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem. Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves. For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower. Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing. What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing. We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.
Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains. Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower. When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought. The internal conversation might go something like this:
What a pretty flower. There’s a petal missing. What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.
Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories. For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again. Write them down in a journal somewhere. Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements. There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.