I first encountered the work of Brené Brown the way millions of others did, through her 2010 TED talk. A friend from college sent it my way, and I listened one day as I tidied my room. It wasn’t long before I had to stop and sit in front of my laptop, riveted. Brené was talking about fear, shame, connection and the ways we hold ourselves back from belonging. My perfectionistic, lonely heart knew that she was speaking my language.
From that day on, I was constantly talking about being “worthy of love and belonging.” And it wasn’t just me who deserved this honor: My friends and family were worthy, my checker at the grocery store was worthy, every single person behind each online dating profile was worthy.
The first time through, and even in successive viewings, I missed a short sentence that undergirds all of Brené’s work. As she describes the “wholehearted” people she encountered in her research, she mentions that they had compassion for themselves first. “Because as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly,” she told her audience.
I brought Brené Brown into my therapy sessions. I made every attempt to be vulnerable with my therapist because I wanted to work toward bettering my emotional health. It was during those meetings, without distractions, that I saw that the words I used to speak to myself were often harsh and unkind.
My therapist and I began working on affirmations, things that I could use to practice speaking kindly to myself. One of them was from Brené: “You are worthy of love and belonging.” My therapist would send them to me throughout the week, little Pinnable images with true, bold words on them.
After some time, I began to write and speak my own affirmations. I began to talk to myself in my car when I was running late, using terms of endearment. I told myself that my thighs were strong, and that I’d done a good job. I looked at myself in my full-length mirror and said, “I love you, Cara.” Sometimes it felt awkward, but it was all worth it for the ways that I relaxed into the kindness and for the extra spring in my step.
None of this was magic. The exacting, perfectionistic words in my head did not cease. Each time, I had to intentionally notice and erase them, adding something gentle, sweet and true in their place. But something in me did change. I began to believe that the unkind words were not true and that the lovely ones were.
I’ve gotten better at talking nicely with myself, but I still get tired or allow myself to spiral sometimes. Thankfully, I happen to have a particularly wonderful friend who is very good at paying attention. It’s no accident that she is pursuing spiritual direction as a vocation. When I am hard on myself, loud enough for her to hear it, she often gently pushes back. “Try to give yourself the kind of grace that you would give me,” she says.
I carry her words into my swirling inner life; in those hard moments, I think about my friend and how very precious she is, imperfections and all. I would move heaven and earth to give her grace and understanding. Slowly, this is how I’m learning to see myself, one kind word at a time.