Working on self-compassion: befriending my childhood self

For some reason, I’ve always felt an instinctive dislike towards my childhood self. I generally like kids, but if somebody had magically produced a copy of the person that I was at 5 or 10 and asked me to look after that kid for a while, my automatic reaction would have been “no, I don’t like that kid”.

I’ve also had somewhat of a bad self-esteem for a long, long time. For my tenth birthday, I decided that I didn’t want to get any presents, because I felt like I had done nothing to deserve them. And I didn’t want to get any presents on future birthdays, or on any Christmas, either. (This caused what’s probably one of the oddest child-parent fights that I know of, with my dad being angry about wanting to give me presents and me steadfastly refusing them.)

These two things seemed obviously related.

So today I started exploring that feeling of dislike. Where was it coming from? Why did I have such an aversion regarding my younger self?

Now here’s the thing. I was an only child who frequently spent more time by himself or around adults than he did around other kids. Like all kids, I had a fair share of fights with my parents about stuff like bedtimes and such.

But I never realized that other kids had those same kinds of fights and tantrums too.

I remember having been distinctly shocked when a teacher we had when I was 13-15 made an off-handed comment about this happening with younger kids.

I hadn’t known that this was a Kid Thing: I had thought it was a Kaj Thing.

And as a result, I’d felt guilty and bad over each time that I’d been self-centered and emotional in the way kids are. By the time I heard my teacher make that comment, it started to dawn on me on an intellectual level that this was nothing special: but on an emotional level I had already internalized a belief that I was exceptionally ungrateful and undeserving for everything my parents did for me.

Today I went back to those experiences. A few memories in particular stuck out: one of the countless bedtime struggles, as well as an occasion when I’d told my dad over the phone that I didn’t like him. And now, instead of just recalling my behavior in those memories – like on every previous occasion when I had recalled them – I tried to remember my emotional state, and to sympathize with it, and to recall other kids that I’ve seen acting up and who I’ve felt sympathetic towards.

And then there was a shift, and those memories started feeling like instances of a Kid Thing, rather than a uniquely Kaj Thing.

And now if you’d bring me a copy of me as I was at 5 or 10, I’d just like to hug that poor kid and tell him that it’s okay.

On being a triad and a team

For a few months this fall, I was part of a poly triad which ultimately didn’t work out… but the moments when it did work, worked. So well in fact, that I suspect that any relationship with only two people involved will from now on feel somehow lacking to me, no matter how good otherwise.

There were two of us guys involved with one gal, with the guys starting out as strangers to each other. Still, from the start it was clear that everyone wanted everybody to be happy, and was going to act accordingly.

To me, at the best moments, we felt like family. Not just two men who happened to both have a relationship with the same woman, but a cohesive unit doing its best that everyone in it (as well as the kid from a previous relationship) would be as well off as possible. Thinking back to it, I recall moments like:

  • all three brainstorming and looking up stuff about how to make the kid sleep better at night, or to be more willing to sit still while riding a bus
  • one of us reading a book aloud to the two others, all three cuddling together
  • everyone spending several hours carrying some fresh wood together
  • all three sitting together and discussing some conflicts that had come up between two of them, with the third one offering a more neutral outside perspective and acting as a general calming force

It’s hard to describe, but I feel like there was a very strong sense in which there being three of us brought a sense of extra stability to the relationship. If someone was upset or doing badly, nobody needed to feel like they alone had the primary burden of helping that person out. Whoever needed support, there were two other people to shoulder the effort of providing it. And nobody would hesitate to provide it, if only they were in a shape where they could.

While it ultimately didn’t work out, that feeling of being a tight-knit family, with a sense of “one for all, all for one”… I’m going to miss that, in any relationship that doesn’t have it. You can get the sense of mutual support with just a single couple, of course; but things like that sense of “we’re both in love with the same person so we’re going to work together to make her happy; and we know that she cares about us both and will be the happiest if both of us are happy, so we’ll also do our best to help each other out whenever we can”… that I don’t think you can really get without having a triad.

Suddenly, a taste of freedom

So a few days back, I mentioned that after getting rid of my subconscious idealized assumptions of what a relationship “should” be like, I stopped being so desperate to be in a relationship.

And some time before that, I mentioned that I’d decided to put the whole “saving the world” thing on hold for a few years and focus on taking care of myself first.

As a result, I’ve suddenly found myself having *no* pressing goals that would direct my life. No stress about needing to do something big-impact. No constant loneliness and thinking about how to best impress people.

Just a sudden freedom to do basically anything.

I’m still in the process of disassembling various mental habits that were focused on making me more single-mindedly focused on the twin goals of saving the world and getting into a relationship. But starting to suspect that even more things were defined by those goals than I suspected.

For instance, my self-esteem has usually been pretty bad, probably because I was judging myself and my worth pretty much entirely by how well I did at those two goals. And I didn’t feel like I was doing particularly well at either.

Now I can just… Live a day at a time and not sweat it.

It’s going to take a while to get used to this.

Finding slices of joy

Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy“. Yes, the title is kinda cringe-worthy, but the content is good. Here are the most essential five paragraphs:

Successfully reshaping your mindset, [Chade-Meng Tan] argues, has less to do with hours of therapy and more to do with mental exercises, including one that helps you recognize “thin slices of joy.”

“Right now, I’m a little thirsty, so I will drink a bit of water. And when I do that, I experience a thin slice of joy both in space and time,” he told CBC News. “It’s not like ‘Yay!”” he notes in Joy on Demand. “It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of nice.’”

Usually these events are unremarkable: a bite of food, the sensation of stepping from a hot room to an air-conditioned room, the moment of connection in receiving a text from an old friend. Although they last two or three seconds, the moments add up, and the more you notice joy, the more you will experience joy, Tan argues. “Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

Tan bases this idea on neurological research about how we form habits. Habitual behaviors are controlled by the basal ganglia region of the brain, which also plays a role in the the development of memories and emotions. The better we become at something, the easier it becomes to repeat that behavior without much cognitive effort.

Tan’s “thin slice” exercise contains a trigger, a routine, and a reward—the three parts necessary to build a habit. The trigger, he says, is the pleasant moment, the routine is the noticing of it, and the reward is the feeling of joy itself.

Since then, I have been working on implementing its advice, and making it a habit to notice the various “thin slices of joy” in my life.

It was difficult to remember at first, and on occasions when I’m upset for any reason it’s even harder to follow, even if I do remember it. Still, it is gradually becoming a more entrenched habit, with me remembering it and automatically following it more and more often – and feeling better as a result. I’m getting better at noticing the pleasure in sensations like

  • Drinking water.
  • Eating food.
  • Going to the bathroom.
  • Having drops of water fall on my body while in the shower.
  • The physicality of brushing teeth, and the clean feeling in the mouth that follows.
  • Being in the same room as someone and feeling less alone, even if both are doing their own things.
  • Typing on a keyboard and being skilled enough at it to have each finger just magically find the right key without needing to look.

And so on.

Most of these are physical sensations. I would imagine that this would be a lot harder for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in their body. But for me, a great thing about this is that my body is always with me. Anytime when I’m sitting comfortably – or standing, or lying, or walking comfortably – I can focus my attention on that comfort and get that little bit of joy.

In the article, it said that

“Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

I feel like this is starting to happen to me. Still not reliably, still not always, still easily broken by various emotional upsets.

But I still feel like I’m making definite progress.