About this time I think about what the last year has meant to me. I sat down and started looking at my goals wondering what got accomplished, what almost got done, and what I never even looked at. Shocker! Many things on my list didn’t get done. I had 33 goals for this year. Most of you are smiling at this point. Me too. What was I thinking? A list like this is not out of the norm for me. Since I was in my early 20s I have had the tendency to overbook and commit to too much. Striving would have been a good middle name for me.
I used my high school years to goof off and scrape by with a C average. Made a bigger mess of myself when I got to college. Had to leave a couple years after I got there because the school was looking at my GPA and questioning if college was a good fit for me. At 24 years I picked up a motivational book, and read it cover to cover in just a couple days. At that point something shifted in me and I started setting goals for myself.
Looking back today, there is one goal that sticks out from last year; I’m shocked I accomplished it and proud of my journey to get there. It’s probably the number one resolution made each year by most of the U.S.
Before going into my story, I am proud to announce that I surpassed my goal! The opportunity this month to write about empathy has created the perfect place to talk about this road of personal triumph. My hope is my story can encourage you.
I was an overweight kid. I love sweets, more than Jesus somedays. No, really I do. I got teased a lot at school. I remember listening to a family member tell my mom and sister that they were fat. Because we are family, I assumed they were talking to me, too. I can remember sneaking off to the cookie jar after my mom and sister went to bed.
One time, I went to this youth event called a Starvathon. In order to support the organization for kids who were starving in another country they got a bunch of teens together and asked us to not eat for 24 hours. Amazing cause. Couldn’t do it. I ended up cutting a hole in my pillow and stuffing packages of cookies in it before I left. Once everyone went to sleep I snuck my cookies out and had a feast. I was in a great mood the next morning. Can’t say the same for my friends, but I was hiding.
When I was 14 years old I moved in with my dad and he wanted me to lose weight. 30 pounds in one summer is how much came off. I remember it being tough but good. I felt better about myself. I felt more confident around my peers. Kids didn’t call me fat anymore. It was the early 90s so I was sure to roll my sleeves up a little bit to reveal these new muscles.
But my internal dialogue was now different. What I knew, was that even though I lost the weight and people started to see me differently, I was still fat. Interesting, once we have believed something about ourselves for a long time, even when our circumstances change it, it doesn’t necessarily mean the way we think about it has also changed. To say that I was cruel to myself would be an understatement.
“We often talk to ourselves in ways that we would never let a stranger or even a friend talk to us.” John Spencer
As you can imagine after enough internal chatter that was toxic I gained the weight again. Now, almost three decades later my weight loss and gain has been in the hundreds. I have been up 30 and down 30 more times than I can count on two hands. The next miracle diet. Run a marathon to lose the weight. Countless start and stop efforts. 48 hours of eating good and then back to the sugar. With each relapse comes more shame. With more shame comes more awful talk. All that equals a cruel internal world that I have lived for a long time.
I am a counselor/therapist by trade. A part of the process I walk clients through is listening to how they talk to themselves. The question I always pose is, “Are you naturally kind to yourself or critical?”
There is an interesting aspect of empathy that we may not think about. The amount of understanding you offer to other people is highly dictated by how much understanding you give yourself. Be kind toward your own weaknesses and you will often offer that same grace to others. More self-critical? The tendency to have less empathy for others happens.
I see clients gain ground in their personal stories just with a change in how they handle mistakes. The result: more living the way they wanted to. In that self talk they learned to be kind to their weaknesses instead of attacking.
On August 7th I started a weight loss journey. As you can imagine I was skeptical. At the same time I have seen clients have success with the addition of kindness and understanding in their own story. I decided I would do the same thing. When a negative, cruel, or down right mean thing entered my mind I would choose to be empathetic instead.
With this new idea on my mind I will be the first to say I was shocked by the amount of negativity. Amazing how much of that just came naturally for me. Seems like the start of August was as much about learning how to be kind to myself as much as it was learning how to eat. There were ups and downs. During the downs, I was compassionate. I traded out arrows for generosity. I stayed with kindness. I gained more empathy for my personal story that spanned 3 decades around this issue.
Looking back, I didn’t get many of my 33 goals accomplished for this year. I will plan cutting that by about, hmmmmm 90% for 2018. Some good did happen though. I dropped 15 lbs. more than I set out to and I've remembered what it was like to be mean to myself and I've stopped.
Let me encourage you with a thought this year. What if the empathy you gave this year started with yourself? What if you picked out the parts of your story that you tend to be mean towards and offered kindness and understanding instead? It’s more than a goal; it’s a good way to live. Maybe the first pair of shoes we need to gain empathy around is our own.
Bob Clifton- Father, Husband, Therapist, Kind to Self