Metaphors for self-compassion: The imaginary figures eating my cereal

by Kat

I reach for elaborate metaphors to describe emotional experiences I’m trying to understand. Shame becomes a monster, crouched by my shoulders. Anxiety is the neighbor who somehow wandered into my house and insists on eating my cereal, while sitting comfortably on my couch, refusing to leave. Self-criticism becomes an enormous iron machine fueled by the thoughtless words of others and my own self doubt. Metaphors help me to fill the gap between the hurt of these experiences and my lack of words to describe just how badly I feel then.

I’m practicing not judging myself when I’m being self-critical and thus ashamed of myself — into infinite loops. My therapist calls this practice, self-compassion — to look at myself like I would a friend that’s struggling or a fictional character whose frustrations mirror my own. It’s easier to be less judgmental towards people who aren’t me. Self-compassion is noticing the strength of my own history — the resilience I’ve shown as I’ve managed the anxiety and learned to care for myself emotionally.

This is hard, and it hurts. Yes, it does. I suppose that’s how the growth process works. But it will come to hurt less as you practice accepting this current experience — even when it hurts, especially when it hurts. Because fighting against it and assuming you’ve done something wrong to encounter these frustrations hurts worse.

This is where I become increasingly self-critical. Because even mindfulness is a difficult practice. To see and acknowledge without judging myself. To be there in the hurt without blaming myself for causing it. I realize it’s easier sometimes for me to blame myself because at least then, I have some (perceived) measure of control. But that’s not true. I am not to blame for the worrisome nature of the period between written exams and oral exams — certainly not for the ambiguities of dissertation proposals and post-grad queries.

Often I feel like I should be doing more, assuming that would quell my anxieties. But I’m learning to recognize what I’ve done, the growth I’ve already experienced. This is so hard, but I keep practicing. Working through meta-shame (shaming oneself about feeling ashamed) is a lengthy process.

I’ve been having a hard time lately — with sleep and with seeing past the stresses of graduate school hurdles. This underlying fear that I am not enough, that I’ve failed to anticipate some trait in myself that will be my undoing is so difficult to shake. Sometimes I borrow the hopes of others: the reminders from my PhD mentor saying that I’m a good writer who can finish this program.

Perhaps hope is replaying that imaginary tape — the one stating, I will eventually be okay, until I come to believe it. To imagine a thriving space that hasn’t arrived, where a future version of myself is both making and finding her fit. It’s imagining how I’ll be enough and valuing the unique vantage point I have as an Autistic woman researching autistic experiences.

For now, self-criticism and shame are my neighbors. They sit on my metaphorical couch, while they make pointless comments about the television programing and complain my cereal is stale. I get off the couch to pour my own breakfast, learning to coexist with this unwelcome company. We glance at one another as my day continues.

Being patient with myself is a process.