I recently suffered a major career disappointment. It wasn’t the first. It was the last straw. It broke me. It seeped into the cracks of my shattered ego and became something foundational, the cancerous concrete of my soul.
My wife did everything she could to help, but the Stoics were right: we are each the gatekeepers of our own emotional state – and I wasn’t letting her in. One morning, as I sat in a café I had once enjoyed, draining a coffee cup of its loaned vitality, children broke into sudden laughter in the sun across the street. I was irritated by their joyful shrieks. No, more than that. I resented them.
Something had to be done. I didn’t want it to one day be my own children whose happiness I envied and eventually wore away. I left my coffee unfinished and rushed home to Google “self-help”.
The Internet is a sea of many-coloured schools of thought on self-improvement. I trawled its pellucid shallows and unfathomable depths for anything to get my ego afloat and my life back on course. I was directed to find my own truth and to find truth in Jesus, to schedule religiously and to schedule nothing, to be authentic and to fake it till I make it, to be grateful for what I have and to have the courage to change, to take the road less travelled and to follow the path of least resistance, to begin with the end in mind and to focus wholly on the present, to let go of my fear and to feel the fear and do it anyway, to awaken the Viking warrior within and to honour my inner goddess by making a plaster mould of my vagina.
After hours spent foundering in these currents of contradictory inspiration, I came across a steady stream that promised to take me ashore. It came in the form of a website that championed self-compassion. The website recommended as a first step that I talk to myself as I would a very close friend. So I did. Or at least, I tried, but my early efforts backfired. As I thought of my friends, I was blinded by the stark contrast between their merits and my failings, and I began to question why they ever had anything to do with me.
But that’s no way to treat a friend. I redoubled my efforts, spending hours compiling evidence of my own worth. It was slow work, so accustomed had I grown to acquiescing to my inner critic. But after a week of concerted practice, I began to value myself in a way I hadn’t for a long time.
Intoxicated, I plunged into further depths of self-love. I moved on to meditative exercises in which self-compassion became not only cognitive, but something more intimate, almost tactile. I downloaded a loving-kindness audio track, and faithfully repeated its mantras each night. "May you be well," I murmured breathily to myself in the dark, "May you be peaceful. May you be haaaappy."
And you know what? For the first time in a while, I was. The two of us – me and my newfound inner friend – began to get along famously. So keen was I for my own company, that when the loving-kindness track instructed me to extend compassion to all living beings on earth, I restarted it so that I could return exclusively to self-loving. It wasn’t that I had no love for other beings. It was just that the love for myself had been missing for so long, and it was wonderful to be in my arms again. I had succeeded. I had become my own friend. And the two of us were getting closer.
We had a great run for a while. I still look back with fondness on those few blissful weeks of platonic self-love. There was nothing particularly glamorous about them. They were filled with those same old tired clichés: long walks in the park, completing each other’s sentences, watching movies in our pyjama for hours on end. The only magic in those moments was that it was just the two of us sharing them – at least whenever my wife was late at work or out with friends. Looking back now, I guess I should have seen it coming.
It happened on one of our PJ movie nights. We had watched The Notebook for about the fifth time in a month, and drifted off while crying in each other’s arms. I woke to my cheek being caressed. I thought my wife must have come home, but she was nowhere to be seen. Evidently I had been stroking my face in my sleep. I considered for a moment reciprocating my somnambulant advances, and taking my relationship with myself to precipitous new heights. But my wife could arrive home at any moment, and I had made a vow. I needed to send myself a clear and early signal that romance was simply not on the table. I took the thickest pair of socks from the wardrobe and placed them on my hands – a palpable sign of the limits to the intimacy I was willing to allow. I switched off the light with one of my sock-covered hands and I tried to get some sleep.
The next morning, some of the self-loathing of old had crept back. I had taken my romantic rejection of myself very personally, and could no longer hold myself with a pure and simple love. A single glance at my fluffy sock-hands made even self-respect an uphill battle. I was back to square one, and needed to find a way to at least tolerate myself again.
I got out of bed, took the socks from my hands, and listened to an audio recording of a body scan exercise. I hoped its emphasis on equanimous self-awareness would get me back on track, without too explicitly encouraging self-love. It was a terrible idea. Wherever my mind travelled along the landscape of my body, my dangerously sock-less hands would follow. Halfway through the body scan, I was encouraged to become aware of my pelvis and yada yada yada I had to end the exercise prematurely.
For the next few weeks, I cycled rapidly between self-lust and self-loathing, with rare respite on middle ground. Each time I began to feel comfortable in my skin, I would only go and touch it inappropriately. What had gone wrong? The self-compassion website had promised me a healthier relationship with myself, but was it healthy to stalk my own Facebook profile, crying over pictures in which I looked happy with other people? Was it healthy to slap my hand away as I went to place it on my wife? Healthy to send myself flirtatious texts like, "I am literally inside you… lol"? Healthy to hide in the bushes outside my apartment, holding feverish vigil for my own arrival, until my wife called out for me to stop being so weird and to come inside for dinner?
My wife, you see, had stayed by my side throughout the whole sorry affair. As I sat down to the dinner she’d prepared, in the room she’d cleaned, in the apartment she’d effectively lived in alone for weeks, it struck me how disrespectful my sordid tryst had been to her. Enough was enough. I needed to face up to myself.
After dinner, I retired to the bathroom, faced the vanity mirror, and looked myself squarely in the eye.
"There’s been something I’ve been–"
"– stop. Just stop. I know."
"What’s happening here. How you feel. About me. About us."
"How do I feel?"
I didn’t need to answer. We both knew. The game was up.
"Just good friends?" I asked the mirror.
"Friends," the mirror confirmed.
I turned and walked away. But just before I turned off the light, I swear I caught a glimpse of my likeness glancing furtively back at me, a shadow of a smirk on his lips. I could only wonder what was going through his mind.
Things are better now. I still gather evidence of my worth, but never without also reciting my marriage vows. I still do lovingkindness meditations, but now I use my own script. "May you be well," I say loudly, with the lights turned on, two layers of clothing, and my hands fixed firmly on the floor. "May you be peaceful. May you be happy. But may you also respect my boundaries and keep your hands to yourself, as I am a married man."
It's working, I think. I'm in control. I just try not to look at mirrors anymore.
How to Safely Practice Self-Compassion
There is a thin line between self-compassion and self-corruption, so take it slow.
Meditation can be very sensual if you do not take the utmost care - dress appropriately.
Remind yourself that a healthy relationship with yourself includes respecting your own boundaries.
If all else fails, cover your mirrors and buy some heavy-duty gloves.