One of my best friends and favorite people in college was Terri. Her smile and positive attitude were absolutely infectious. Whether we were prepping for exams or preparing the salad bar at Ruby Tuesdays (Hostesses with the Mostestes), she was always sure to brighten my day in true “Terri-fic” fashion. She did not allow or tolerate negativity. If she caught me degrading or talking down about myself, she made me stop and give five things that I loved about myself. FIVE things! That is a lot. I found the task to be challenging and even foreign. I had no problem pointing out my flaws; I was always focused on those, but things that I loved about myself? There was no go-to list in my brain. And plus, wasn’t it vain to talk about how much I love qualities about myself? Would I be perceived as conceited? It didn’t matter - Terri forced me into a strong dose of positive self-talk.
Recently, I have reflected on the power of this simple ritual. It saddens me that it was such a difficult task for me to talk nicely about myself. See, I am a recovering perfectionist. Believe it or not, I have not always been this open, raw, non-hair-washing free spirit. Most of my life has been spent playing the role of a people-pleasing perfectionist. I was my absolute worst critic. I gave myself an unspoken report card every night. Mother - B. Teacher - A. Coach - B+. Daughter - C. Wife - (I usually fell asleep by the time I got to this point, but you get my drift). My to-do list for self-improvement was neverending. There was no enjoying the journey.
In one of perhaps the most revolutionary internal transformations I have ever made, I decided to permanently LOOSEN UP. Maybe it was the million and one self-help books I read. Maybe it was hearing Anne Lamott speak at a reading where she explained how she patted herself on the right shoulder and self-soothed with kind talk and gentle touch. Maybe it was realizing that while I love being everyone else’s cheerleader, I don’t have to wait on them to reciprocate - I can cheer myself on through the ups and downs. Maybe it was the realization that self-compassion is a life-changing, transformative gift that I was lacking. Or, let’s be honest, it was probably a result of therapy.
I am not sure why it took me almost twenty years to adopt Terri’s suggestion for self-kindness but better late than never. Several months ago, I started listing three things that I was proud of each day in a journal at night. It is part of a much greater shift towards mindfulness and cultivating gratitude. This practice forces me to reflect on the positive without being distracted and consumed with the mistakes or missteps that inevitably happen throughout my day. Rather than evaluating each of my roles in hard-core, red-pen, English teacher fashion, I can pat my shoulder a la Anne Lamott and high five myself for small victories.
I have noticed that throughout my day I am harvesting the good moments and anxious to relive and capture them on my list that night. I am mindful and notice the beauty in the ordinary rather than focusing on flaws. This routine has also poured over into my interactions with family and friends. My kids and I frequently discuss what we were proud of from a given day. “I can tell you what’s going on my list today. I ordered the salad at lunch,” texts my best friend. I respond, “My list will note that I did not finish the entire pint of gelato.” We celebrate together.
Being kind to myself and celebrating my successes does not mean I turn a blind eye to my flaws. I will always be a work in progress, but shouldn’t I be kind to myself along the way? It’s not realistic to expect a 10/10 performance in each area of my life every single day. I have to let that go. However, I can usually find some noteworthy accomplishment, even if at times it means I just showed up. There are days I literally struggle to list three things. I might grit my teeth and log, “You did not let it get you down that your children acted like ungrateful jerks,” or “Good job not getting overwhelmed even though you have 67 research essays to grade by next week.” I think these examples might be a passive aggressive misuse of the system, but I already mentioned that I am not perfect.
I know that self-compassion and learning to be kind to myself, rather than constantly critical, have changed my life. I also know, to borrow words from author Glennon Melton Doyle, I gave up being a good parent and decided to try to be a good person. I don’t want my children to be robbed of joy in this life because they are too busy criticizing themselves. I want them to hold their head high, be proud, and unashamedly high five themselves to celebrate a “terri-fic” day. Our home can be a place filled with kindness, not just for others, but also for ourselves.