It’s always interesting when you find yourself having the same conversation with multiple people in your life, particularly when those people seem, on the surface to have nothing in common with one another. Seems there’s an important idea in there.
The specifics of the conversation are not particularly important, but the thrust of it was that these folks were seriously tired. Like super duper getting in the way of other things tired. As we talked, it became clear to me that while being tired was a problem, the bigger problem was what being tired meant to them. They each interpreted their tiredness in different ways, but both saw the fatigue as being indicative of some combination of personal flaw and bad behavior. I share this example with you because it is the perfect example of the way that our thoughts can take a simple biological fact and hold us hostage.
The way that this all plays out then is that the harsh interpretation of the ways in which we are not worthy and will never get it right becomes the stance. We proceed from this point, this point which is totally draining and limiting. We are tired because we believe we are flawed and unworthy. Believing we are flawed and unworthy makes us more tired, which we observe with disgust and disdain. Do you see where I’m going here? The only fact in this whole scenario is one of tiredness. We’ve gone from tired to doomed in a few, short well-rehearsed thoughts. The real problem is what we think about being tired. The suffering is coming from the thoughts we have about being tired, from our commitment to being hard on ourselves.
Can you hear it now, someone who loves you saying: “Why are you so hard on yourself?” I can. My reflexive answer has typically been one of ending that conversation as quickly as possible because that person obviously doesn’t know anything. I dismiss the input of my dearest dear ones because it doesn’t match the voices of what Martha Beck refers to as “the furies,” those old voices in our heads that try to keep us safe by keeping us essentially immobile. Happiness and fulfillment are really not so important to those voices. Safety is key, because who knows when a sabertooth tiger might appear and tear us limb from limb. Right. You are right. That’s not going to happen. To make it easier to be soft on ourselves we need to interrupt them, see those furies for what they are. Tell them “It’s okay. Really, I’m alright.” We need to acknowledge the choice we make when we accept the most negative interpretations of the facts before us. We need to acknowledge where the facts end and our thoughts begin. We need to imagine alternate explanations for those facts. We need to try on different thoughts.
What does being softer on ourselves sound like in the conversations I’ve been having? It goes something like this: “Maybe you’re just really tired.” The irony was that the people I was talking to have exceptionally good reasons for being REALLY physically and emotionally tired. We talked about how reasonable it would be to be tired. And more importantly we talked about how much more restful rest would be without any of these self-destructive judgments interfering. Who can really rest when they’re building a case for how messed up they are and will always be? That’s hard work. Letting those furies run amok perpetuates a cycle that leaves us destined to prove them right: more tired, more certain of our unworthiness, more dismayed. Being softer allows us to approach the facts from the position of determining what the problem is that we can solve, like a puzzle, with a nap or an earlier bedtime. A nice soft rest.
And so I hear and see the lesson as a reminder of one of the big struggles in my own life, remembering to be soft on myself. What is a fact? What is my thought about the fact? Is there another possible interpretation of that fact that is equally true or truer? Is there another way to think about it that is softer on myself? What kind of action would that thought make possible?
I recommit to listening to those dearest dear ones when they ask why I’m being so hard on myself. And let’s face it, I know what those furies say. We’ve been together awhile. I could even write down what they’re likely to say given the opportunity. In the absence of the sabertooth tiger, I recommit to self-compassion and a softer response to the facts. After all, sometimes when I’m tired, I really just need more sleep.