While dashing to the train after my morning swim, I notice a small pull in my brand-new navy stocking. By the time I get off the subway, my left leg resembles the tights of a punk-rocker. Not exactly the look I was striving for in a morning piled up with back-to-back meetings like a big stack of pancakes. The truth is, why did the wardrobe malfunction even matter?
Yet on a really small, ever-so-annoying level, somehow it did.
And that got me thinking. For some reason, I immediately recalled an improbably famous People Magazine cover shoot from 1990. Cybill Shepherd’s smiles broadly, a dazzling Hollywood leading lady right off the red carpet. However, in spite of the A-list team of sytlists, hair and makeup experts who surely spent hours creating the “prefect look” the most remarkable thing about the cover proved to be something rather unexpected. There was a significant run in her stocking. When the actress saw the wardrobe malfunction she laughed and was not interested in changing into a new pair. And to the surprise of the editorial team, hundreds of readers actually wrote letters thanking Ms. Shepherd for presenting herself as a “regular person” runs in her stockings and all.
All of us is wonderfully imperfect, including glamorous celebrities who occasionally get a “snag.” Perhaps you can’t find your cell phone charger as your phone starts powering off just as your doctor or your best friend calls to give you some important news. Or you get immersed in a magazine article and forget that your favorite activity is about to start in the teen lounge. Once you remember that the class started twenty minutes ago you head for the lounge getting there just in time to see all of the other patients laughing and walking back to their rooms. You missed the entire experience. When you or someone you love is grappling with a serious illness, sometimes it is precisely these little daily indignations that can trigger a strong negative emotional response that can make the incident seem even worse.
When we free ourselves from setting impossibly high standards of self-perfection, our ability to accept mistakes, failures and painful emotions actually allows us to experience more happiness since we don’t let the mistake or the imperfection define us and take over our life. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect. How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar talks about our own and society’s crushing expectations. According to Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfection may actually be the most powerful internal obstacle to happiness. In my experience, I’ve found that some of the most authentic conversations with strangers, friends and people I’ve met while spending lots of time in hospitals have been conversations where people are courageous enough to be vulnerable, not trying to project an image that “they’ve got it together all the time.” When people share from this rich, authentic place of vulnerability, then everyone can feel a sense of relief, a sense of connection, and a sense of hope. Connections like this make us feel safe.
As human beings, our bodies are wired with a mammalian care system programmed to respond to warm, gentle touch or a soothing voice that makes us feel comforted and safe. Think of a human baby or a baby deer being cared for by its mother. When mammals are nurtured, their bodies release oxytocin the natural chemical that makes us feel safe and calm.
Studies show that people who have self-compassion are able to brush off set-backs, disappointments, and mistakes without blowing them out of proportion. Dr. Kristen Neff is an expert on self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as “the importance of putting ourself in the circle of compassion which means treating ourself with the same kindness, care and concern that we would treat a good friend.”
Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, as we truly are, flaws and all. Neff shares the three elements of self-compassion: the first is treating yourself with self-kindness. The second is recognition that there is a common humanity. This is the process of “realizing how I am the same as others and that to be human is to be imperfect.” Recognition of our shared human experience allows us to feel connected to others, instead of feeling isolated in our suffering. The last element of self-compassion concerns mindfulness which Neff defines as being with “what is” in the present moment. When we notice we are feeling isolated or suffering, then this is precisely the time to give ourself some self-compassion.
So the next time you experience a set-back, simply stop and take a deep breath. Instead of taking it out on yourself with self-criticism, shame, anger and other negative emotions, take another deep breath and give yourself a gentle hug or kind word. This simple step takes less than ten seconds and can prevent you from falling into a black hole of negative emotions and despair. The more self-compassion you practice, the easier it becomes to replace the negative self-criticism with warm and loving self-talk. In doing this simple ritual you’ll be able to celebrate your wonderful imperfections as part of the glorious, messy journey to your true authentic self.
As I got into the elevator at my office building, I looked down at my disheveled blue stockings and quickly turned the run towards the inside of my leg where it was slightly less obvious. I confidently walked out of the elevator into the rest of my day. Later that night, the tangled hosiery was tossed into the trash while self-compassion helped me keep my spirit from landing in the garbage.