I worry that granting myself grace will make me feel, or become, selfish.
I don’t remember the exact words, but I will never forget how I felt as I wrote them.
My pen sliced the page as a butcher’s knife would meat, purple ink bleeding evidence of my self-loathing. The vitriol slamming within my mind, throat, and chest collided with my journal, where I recorded how pathetic and unbearable I am—all because, that morning, I had overslept, and missed my train.
Over a decade later, I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, that never before or since have I abused myself in such a way. But we only wish for what we would like to, yet do not, have. The language I used against myself that morning of the missed train was far from a single overreaction; I regularly perceive myself as being without worth, and beyond repair. Between my anxiety, insecurities, and perfectionism, I have never known what it is like to make mistakes, fall short, or disappoint, without berating myself for it. Sometimes, the self-inflicted reviling can last for weeks, months, and, yes, even years.
Certainly, we all hear the chiding of an inner critic, and at times can even benefit from it. While I have known for most of my life that I am particularly hard on myself, it hasn’t been until recently that I have realized just how insidious that can be. My judgments about myself, and the subsequent shame and stress these harsh assessments induce, squander my quality of life.
While I acknowledge that no one is perfect, I personally do not feel justified in being flawed. I had too nourishing of a childhood, have had too many exceptional opportunities, and live far too comfortable a life, to warrant the imperfections that comprise who I am. But I know my character will always be blemished, even if I believe it shouldn’t. As a result, I live in dreadful anticipation of when my faults will inevitably devastate all that I cherish.
My accomplishments, for instance, rarely feel like my own. Suspicions that my feats are flukes—certainly, I do not possess the talent, or intelligence, or discipline, to attain that, do I?—prohibit me from fully enjoying success. Because I believe that I am only one mistake away from shattering any and everything, achievement always feels, at best, precarious. Even worse, I am convinced that my loved ones are on the brink of realizing I am a far worse person than they ever imagined and will vanish from my life at any moment.
Simply put, I do not feel deserving of even the smallest pleasures in life. For the year I lived along a canal in England, most of the sunsets I watched brought me to tears; I did not, and still do not, feel as though I am good enough to witness something so beautiful.
Since childhood, I have told myself I am not, and never will be, enough. I have fixated on my failings, dismissed my triumphs, and been inexplicably ashamed of and angry at myself more often than not. A few months ago, then, when I discovered I had lost a new earring, it was unsurprising that I immediately scolded myself for being an irresponsible adult, undeserving of nice things. I felt detestable. Ordinarily, this sense of insignificance would have persisted for at least a few hours, but instead lasted only a moment. After so many years of nurturing this self-destructive thought pattern, I cannot explain what made it cease so suddenly, but mercifully, it did. That was the first time I understood: I do not need to talk to, or perceive, myself so cruelly. In fact, I shouldn’t. I deserve better for and from myself.
It has only been since I began therapy this summer that I have come to learn the necessity of becoming self-compassionate. However, for as much as I want to improve my reactions to my shortcomings, I do not know how. A willing nurturer in my personal and professional lives, I consistently show others patience, understanding, and forgiveness—yet cannot fathom extending that benevolence to myself. Despite my newfound awareness that I must practice self-compassion, I simply do not feel worthy of it. Does kindness still count if it is forced? Though I can imagine a life free of the torment of my disparaging self-talk and self-perceptions, it feels unattainable. I yearn to be someone who thoroughly, and authentically, takes care of herself, but I am only fluent in chastising and denouncing. I worry that granting myself grace will make me feel, or become, selfish. I cannot discern when to hold myself accountable versus when to cut myself slack. I do not know how to love myself in spite of my flaws.
But I can learn. I will. Crossing the chasm to self-compassion will exhaust and exasperate me, I am sure. I anticipate needing to (incessantly) remind myself why I must leave where I have virtually always been, and go to this place I have never known. It will be a demanding journey, but it is also long overdue—and I refuse to continue missing the train.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, runs, and photographs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, Spry, elephant journal, A Quiet Courage and Vine Leaves Literary Journal, among others.