Recently, my husband and I have had a couple conversations about how I deal with myself. He doesn't mince words. What he said, to be precise, was: "You don't have any grace for yourself."
I happen to think he's right about this. I probably never did have grace for myself, but it's become especially apparent after becoming a mother. We women tend to internalize the messes in our lives more than men do (they externalize more often). And I for one, am probably the harshest critic I have.
As I mulled over his honest words (he's lucky that I love truth, even when it's difficult), I started seeing little segments of my days as I take care of our house, or try to teach our boys something, or make a meal in the midst of the early evening chaos....and the internal dialogue (that sometimes makes its way out of my mouth) was dismal, at best.
A particular scenario played itself out on recently as I spent a couple hours at home before picking up the boys from school. I knew that my 8 year old was having a friend over after school and I had wanted to take care of some of the mess in the boys' room before school got out. I found myself in typical ADHD mode, moving from one spot to another, cleaning this, picking up that, not staying in any one place long enough to do much good. And I was having an internal war with myself:
"I wanted to have some good, solid quiet time this afternoon, since there's no school Friday or Monday and my sanity will be stretched."
"But I want to get some things organized in the boys' room, so it's not so messy when their friend arrives."
Back and forth the war went on. I knew what was driving it. I wanted to have the house more presentable, so that my son's friend wouldn't go home and tell his family what a mess our house was. Total honesty. This is me.
"Hello, I'm Heather, and I care too much about what people think of me and my house and my children and my everything."
<insert exasperated sign here>
Now let's have a reality check here. I'm 99% sure, my son's friend could have cared less if there were too many Legos and books on the floor of my boys' room. But look how I went into auto pilot mode and let my sinful tendencies control my day! It almost cost me my biggest goal for my day - to spend some time journaling and praying, reading Hebrews, and listening to some soaking music. And THAT is what I truly needed. More than a clean room.
But to break through this rhythm of striving takes some serious intentionality. You know why? Because striving is almost always wrapped up in a false identity. You know....those selves we live out of when we don't know our identity in Christ....when we're caught up trying to be something, or prove something, or please someone. And those identities are not beautiful. They're not free. They're in bondage. And you just don't have to live like that. You get to live free.
So dig deep now, let's take a look at a few steps to take towards learning to be gentle with yourself and finding that freedom we all long for.
1. Pay attention to the "shoulds" in your head. If you're really honest with yourself, what is driving you? When we're pushing ourselves based on some need (that we're usually not even consciously aware of), we are most definitely not gentle with ourselves. What "should" you do? What "should" you not do? What "should" you look like or not look like? But the first step is to pay attention and listen to what's actually going on inside of you. Identification is essential.
2. Ask yourself what's driving the "shoulds" or the expectations you have for yourself. This is where the false identity will usually rear its ugly head. You're trying to be someone or something you're not. You're gaining your worth from something external. This is where we die to self. The self that wants to be something more than what it perceives itself to be. "I'm not good enough, all by myself." Of course you're not - that's God's job to make you into what He wants you to be, and it'll never be under your power; it'll be by His.
3. Ask yourself what your soul needs. We're not very good at paying attention to our souls, eh? We just like to get the job done, and feel good about ourselves for doing it, right? But slow yourself down so you can hear the rhythm of your soul. It's there, trying to tell you something, underneath all the noise of your life. Usually, our souls are lonely, thirsty for real relationship, for someone to see us as we are and not reject us. This is one of the driving forces behind our performance oriented selves; it's true for me. "If I perform well, then I will be liked." We don't believe we will be loved and accepted for who we are, without proving we are somehow needed or important or essential. Are you connected to anyone who can meet you at this level? There was a point in my life several years ago where I was dying internally, until someone stepped in and said, "I want to know you, even the darkest parts, and I promise I won't leave." Maybe you need to reach out.
4. Finally, create for yourself a breath prayer. I was first introduced to the concept of a breath prayer a year or so ago after reading Ruth Haley Barton's book, "Sacred Rhythms." The whole point is the centering aspect of it. It's short, no more than seven syllables. You breathe as you pray. For example: Inhale and say (out loud or silently in your heart) "Father," then exhale and say, "hold me close." Your breath prayer is your own. Make it a few words that have deep meaning or express your heart to the Lord. Begin and end your day with your breath prayer, and pepper it into your work and family time. When you're tempted to push yourself to perform, breathe your breath prayer. When you're feeling lost and alone, breathe your breath prayer.
Becoming more comfortable in your own skin only comes by being gentle with yourself. We never get good results with harshness and degradation - we know this from our relationships and parenting - why would we expect it to be any different inside our own heads and hearts?