Kinder to a stranger

About five years ago, I badly needed a breakthrough.

I was incredibly sad. As painful as it is to admit, I was in the habit of thinking mean things about myself and looking with disgust in the mirror in the morning. On my good days, I wasn’t as hard on myself. I just doubted everything I did and said and felt guilty about all of my shortcomings. That’s not so bad, is it?

Love myself? I didn’t even know how to be polite. Or to offer myself the benefit of the doubt, as I would for a stranger. If you know me personally, can you imagine me treating even the most casual acquaintance this way? Yet I thought nothing of doing this to myself. I thought I deserved it.

Something I read or heard at the time recommended that I try to treat myself as I would a small child or a close friend. And the clouds started to part just a little bit.

I found this photo (below) of a precious young girl and set out to reconnect with her. I printed out her photo and put it on my desk and practiced treating myself the way I would want to treat her.

Rachel at six

After all, why would I want to be cruel to this little girl?

Would I tell her that she was ugly? That she wasn’t good enough?
That she was unworthy of love? Or even of someone’s undivided attention during a conversation?
Would I tell her that she should feel ashamed of herself and how terribly she does everything?
That she hasn’t accomplished enough with her life?
That she needs to get her teeth fixed or lose weight or have her hair colored to be truly pretty?
That other people were much more valuable and successful and together?
That she should hide her feelings and squelch her needs and pay attention only to what other people want and need?

It sounds ludicrous now. But these are the things I thought I needed to hear.

One day I decided that the pain was too much. I was not just sad. I was angry and wanted to start fighting. In the light of day, the lies I was telling myself were truly astounding. It took a special therapist to gently point out where there were lies and where there was truth. To help me reclaim my life.

And one day I acknowledged that perhaps I was worthy of a little more tenderness and compassion. After all, I was still the girl in the picture. I had not changed in some horrible way on the inside. And I certainly hadn’t done anything unforgivable. Most tangibly, if I met someone like me, I would not think that they were a loser and pathetic excuse for a human being.

What happened between this:

Rachel in her first year

And this…my 38th birthday…

Rachel feeling sad...maybe I don't look it, but I was feeling it.

…is what everyone experiences to some degree (some less, some far more than me.)

So-and-so did tell me in 7th Grade that I needed a nose job.  I did feel deeply that my perfect behavior was the one and only key to my parents’ love and acceptance. And someone did say to me in college that I couldn’t be depressed and be a Christian.

As a child, I might not have had the ability to sort out truth from fiction. But as an adult, and with practice, I could choose to shine light into these dark experiences. And it started with allowing myself to be kind. To myself. I could be just as compassionate and forgiving and encouraging to myself as I would be to a stranger.

I don’t need to ask anyone else for permission to be kind to myself. Nor do I need to be dependent on anyone else to experience acceptance.

Gazing into my childhood eyes with compassion helped me to make this transformation. Now, I can look at my 42-year old eyes with the same tenderness and – imagine this incredible bonus – with joy. Just because it’s more than ok to be me.

17 Responses to Kinder to a stranger

  1. Anna April 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Oh my, what a beautiful post, Rachel. Your words are a gift to all of us. x

  2. Carla April 19, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Boy, do I know that voice! Coincidentally, it was on an evening last spring when you babysat for us that I had a similar breakthrough moment while walking with Jimmy. It took that same process of thinking about what I would say to my 10-year-old self, the lies I would correct and the truths I would tell her, for me to realize how long I’d carried those false messages with me.
    Thank you for sharing your breakthrough. It’s reminding me to pay attention to mine.

  3. Rachel Greenhouse April 19, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Thanks Anna. This was a particularly vulnerable one to write. I appreciate so much your feedback, friend.

  4. Amy Haley April 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    When I look into your young eyes it is like I am gazing into Jacob’s. The resemblance is incredible and something I hadn’t noticed before (don’t you think?). I love him and I love you. Great job on this post.

  5. Jeremy April 19, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Lovely. xo

  6. claudia April 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    This is a page out of my life… from the self talk to the kindness to my inner child…amazing.
    and I am retraining myself to find the love within me and not expect it from the outside by perfection. It’s a long road… and I will get there.

    “She was not where she had been.
    She was not yet where she was going…
    but she was on her way. ”
    And so, I begin my 1,000 mile journey with one step…
    Thanks for this essay Rachel. It’s good to have friends along the way.

  7. Mary April 20, 2010 at 12:48 am #

    One of my favorite Ann Lamott quotes is about how she learned to love herself “maternally and militantly.” I love that — seems like you’ve managed the same thing. Sometimes a daily challenge though, isn’t it? One I still grapple with, somedays more than I’d care to admit.

  8. Anna April 20, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    It’s funny – I don’t know how it happens, but VERY often what you’re blogging about is what I’m going through at the moment. It makes me realize how universal and how intimate these themes are. For you to write about them on such a deeply personal level is both heartwrenching – so vulnerable! – and so honorable, to call out what so many of us feel, to really pay attention and to give voice to those silent fears and doubts.

    I am constantly amazed and in awe of your gift with words and gift of insight – and even more your willingness to share both.

    xx a

  9. Katie April 20, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    That is just beautiful. I’m so glad you have found a way to be loving to yourself! You deserve it as much as anyone!

  10. Laura April 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    You bring tears to my eyes. I’m so glad to know you and know that my children will know you. We all need this reminder of the child inside and how dear (s)he is.

  11. Teri April 26, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    Loved this post Rachel. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Mothergoose August 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    Awesome post Rachel…..and I know exactly what you’re saying. I could believe deeply God’s love, grace, and unquestioned acceptance for everyone else but me. I was never good enough, never did enough, and it didn’t matter what rung on the ladder I finally reached, there were always more left untouched. It took becoming almost suicidal before Jesus set me free from the treadmill existence of performance-based acceptance, and I have never, nor will I ever, been the same since!!

    Look at you now!!! Out there running, living, growing, deepening, free to become the you that you were always meant to be!! I hope you feel His smile, His approval, His pride and joy as He brags on you and cheers you on every step of the way!!!

  13. Maggie Conway April 17, 2012 at 6:10 am #

    Thank you for opening up and sharing another really personal experience with us. I too, have been there, and having wonderful people like you in my life is a gift. <3

  14. Jennifer Richardson April 17, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    Such a beautiful, beautiful thing
    when someone learns to love themselves
    and then the love and healing and light and wholeness
    begins to flow to all their parts
    and then out to others
    and builds a warm safety for every heart
    that draws near.
    I love your gorgeous heart, Rachel.
    Thanks so much for this generous share:)
    -Jennifer

  15. Michael April 17, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    Rachel, I came across this quote again last night, and then saw your post this morning. Your life has had such a ripple effect… Thank you for lighting our sparks!

    At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.
    Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
    – Albert Schweitzer

  16. AM (@Earthlamb) April 17, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    So tender and beautifully expressed, Rachel. We do need to be kind to our inner child who often carries so much hurt and pain. It’s great that you discovered your beauty and know it now, and no one can take it away from you again. Just let them try! Love ya, AMW x

  17. Sima April 17, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    Rachel, this was another extraordinary piece. So beautiful and painful at the same time. So much growth. You are one of the most talented, gifted, fun and beautiful women I’ve ever known…..and I have yet to really get to know you, and look forward to getting to know the many amazing layers that make such an extraordinary woman in this little corner of the world. Thanks for sharing.

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