As a person who struggles with both perfectionism and depression, I’m not very good at being kind to myself. I speak to myself in ways that I never would to another person, and I’m pretty great at beating myself up for basically any offense, big, small, real, or imagined.
I’m getting better at this, but I’ve realized that I struggle a lot with being kind to the person I was in the past. One of the ironies of working through your mental health issues is that it can honestly be kind of depressing. Yes, you’re learning how to correct your faulty thinking patterns and tendencies and where they came from, and it makes your life going forward much better. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of hard things happened in the past, things that maybe could have been avoided if you knew then what you know now.
For example, I’ve learned that I can be extremely codependent, denying my own legitimate needs in an unhealthy way because I feel responsible for other people’s happiness. When I look back at my life now, I can see far too many decisions I made that were influenced by this tendency. These choices usually made me unhappy, but at the time, I was okay with that because I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought I was being a good Christian by putting other’s needs ahead of my own, but really, I was acting like I didn’t matter as a person.
It’s painful to realize this, especially because the unhealthiness of it all seems so obvious to me now. How could I have been so ignorant? Why did I waste so much time doing things that I hated when it was completely unnecessary? How much happier could I have been then, and how much less regret would I have now, if I hadn’t been influenced by those wrong thought patterns? I feel the loss of what could have been, and it makes me really sad. And then I feel angry because feeling sad stinks, and I’m being forced to experience sadness when it could have been prevented. It’s hard.
Feeling this sadness and anger is normal and even healthy, I think. But what isn’t healthy is when I go a step too far and chew out my past self for messing up. Instead of showing my past self grace and compassion for struggling for legitimate reasons, I feel shame and blame myself for not handling things perfectly. (Not that we can ever do anything perfectly anyway, but that’s the perfectionism talking. Baby steps.)
What I’m trying to do now is to be kind to who I was and respect the choices I made in the past, even those that were influenced by poor mental health and caused me unnecessary pain. Even though I disagree with them now and wish I had done things differently, those decisions seemed like the right ones at the time. I was doing the best I could with what I had, and fortunately, I have a lot more now.
I can also acknowledge the bravery it takes to face the hard realities of the past, precisely because it entails feeling regret, sadness, and anger. And finally, it forces me to deal with the fact that my feelings of sadness and anger probably wouldn’t be so intense if I wasn’t such a perfectionist who thinks that my life has to be perfect to be any good. It’s like the fun never ends! But I’ll try to break the cycle: instead of beating myself up for being a perfectionist, I’ll try to be kind to myself instead. Baby steps.