An Invitation To Gentleness
Part 1 – The Shadow’s Triad Or The Struggles To Be Gentle
All my life, I have been reflecting so passionately on personal development that I became a Counsellor. Notably throughout lived and witnessed experiences, trainings, received and given therapy, books and TED Talks, I have been reflecting on why our struggles manifest. Beside what life throws at us, is there a determining factor common to all of us? Is there a key to unlock the struggles of existence? As a Counsellor, I personalise the therapy I provide to each client, because I strongly believe that everyone is and has a very individual and rich network of complexities. That being said, I found a constant: an attitude.
An attitude is always present. Our attitude toward ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and sensations, the ones of others. Our attitude toward who we are, what we do, who people are and what they do. Our attitude toward the world, events and situations in it and in our life; or toward a topic. Our attitude is pretty determinant in what we struggle with, and how long and how much we struggle. How could it not be when it is a constant factor, embedded in everything we are and do? We can’t always choose what happens in our life or in the world, what we think or feel, but I trust we always can try to reflect and work on what attitude we want to adopt toward them. So, I wondered: is there one attitude better than others?
Recently, as I was reflecting on my counselling practice, I realised that I keep on inviting my clients to adopt a certain attitude. One I came to believe is at the core of the therapeutic healing and growth: gentleness. Certainly, there are other attitudes to add up to create a healthy and dynamic life such as curiosity, enthusiasm, optimism and playfulness, but gentleness feels like a priority to me.
Google says gentleness is: “the quality of being kind, tender or mild-mannered; the softness of action or effect; lightness”. It is fairly obvious to me, - and it takes one to know one -, that most of us tend to lack gentleness toward what we think, feel, do and haven’t done. A lack of gentleness toward who we are and where we are in our journey.
As I was trying to write an article about the rules of gentleness, I realised two things. Firstly, where there are rules there is space for more gentleness; - hereby the title of this article being an ‘invitation’. Secondly, before reflecting on how to adopt and practice gentleness, I needed to explore what may prevent us from being gentle with ourselves. Once again, though there is a multitude of specific reasons and consequences for each individual, I tried to find some archetypal reasons for this general lack of gentleness.
Working with a widely diverse range of clients, I certainly verified what I was taught during my training. The first source of self-loathing and harshness toward one self is our primal wound1. In our early years, we all experience many forms of fractures with our surrounding, where we are treated more as objects than as beings, where we experience conditional love, and many variations of neglect and abuse. Firman and Gila1 notably explain that those fractures create disruptions in our connection to our self, and from those traumatic disruptions result feelings of emptiness, loneliness and isolation. We are not seen and loved adequately. This is the first wounding to which we react unconsciously by throwing ourselves “into addictions of all sorts, - from sex, romance and drugs to wealth, power and violence”1.
Our primal wounding extends to our entire upbringing, where implicit and explicit values are transmitted, - such as the infamous catholic guilt. We are taught how to consider and treat ourselves. Harshly, poorly, dismissively… This becomes our attitude toward ourselves. Our fundamental truth, - that our being is good enough to be and to be loved unconditionally as it is -, is denied. We then deny our hurt and anger that we bury in the shadow of ourselves, from which are sourced all kinds of acting out and dysfunctional patterns.
That shadow has been continuously analysed and conceptualised, notably around Joung’s work on ‘The Shadow Self’2, - this unconscious field of so-called negative or dark urges, feelings, impulses and desires. Thinking psychosynthetically3 around subpersonalities, - those different parts within us -, I conceptualised a ‘Shadow’s Triad’ blocking us the access to gentleness, being its nemesis. A Triad composed by an Inner Critic, a Control Freak and a Perfectionist. Indeed, it seems to me that most of us have variations of those entities within ourselves and that they prevent us to access for ourselves that gentleness we may be able to provide to others. I would insist here for the last time that as per everything else, those parts differ from an individual to another. I also believe therapy is one of the only spaces where this can be explored, understood, unfolded and resolved, - and in consequence of which individuals can heal and grow.
Why is this Triad, - in my opinion -, preventing us from accessing and practicing gentleness with ourselves? I think it is all about misplaced and/or toxic energies and messages that overlap. We are lost in that self-depreciating Bermuda triangle of the psyche. The Inner Critic and The Perfectionist create a sea of ‘should’ we try to navigate without compass, seasick. We should do more, we should be less, we shouldn’t ask for what we want, we shouldn’t have done this, we should have done that. We don’t know why we are not good enough, but we sure know we aren’t, so we work at it, harder and harder.
The Inner Critic tells us “you’re rubbish” and The Perfectionist echoes with “you’re not and will never be good enough”. They are incarnations of conditional self-love, with conditions always out of reach. Self-love and self-esteem become something to deserve throughout unrealistic never-ending expectations. If I get this promotion or diploma, complete this project, buy a house or get married, then I will be able to be proud of who I am and what I have achieved. But as soon as one goal is reached, another takes its place with the same conditional on hold self-love. And how can self-respect, acceptance and self-compassion, - qualities of gentleness -, can occur if self-loathing is at play? Because be sure that as some attitude the energy of love is always there, and if not in its positive form, in the other side of its coin: loath.
Indeed, in Psychosynthesis, we believe in two coexisting energies that drive us continuously: love and will4. I trust gentleness to be one fundamental attitude of love. But when those energies of love and will are misused by our shadow, we come to carry ourselves in life with an underlying sense of self-loathing and worthlessness. How can we then find our salvation? I have witnessed that for many of us, the embodied belief of worthlessness pushes us to find our salvation in sacrifying ourselves for the sake of others. Isn’t it in the occidental world the main heritage of Christianity? We are good and humbled if we sacrify ourselves for others and punish ourselves for who we are. This is what we call in Psychosynthesis a distorted good will, where we ignore the detrimental impact on ourselves our good actions toward others can have. This isn’t goodness, and this sure isn’t health or sanity. Good will is about the wellness of everyone, including ourselves. Because what the Shadow’s Triad makes us forget is that our first duty, our first loyalty should be to ourselves. I strongly believe in “put the mask of oxygen on your face first”. I believe in a healthy selfishness, narcissism and self-indulgence, reminding ourselves to put self-love5 first, and then combining it with good will and a drive toward togetherness as a motto to practice a healthy happy relational life.
But our Inner Critic and our Perfectionist can create a storm of self-loathing dynamics that fuel a continual feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness that our Control Freak comes to torture us with. We try to control our appearance, how we are perceived, how things happen at work, in our relationships and in all single aspects of our life. In our selfie FOMO6 make believe current society, we over-expose ourselves to the world with more pretending than ever before. We become distant from our own reality, our true self. So much energy spent, so much pressure and stress endured hoping to “fake it until we make it”. Anxiety confuses our judgements. We are no longer able to distinguish what matters to what doesn’t, or our priorities. We may no longer differentiate our needs from our wishes. We may even lose track of why we want what we want. We withhold our breath and forget to be who we are.
We misconnect to others with our false selves and our list of should, and continuously go back to feeling this primal emptiness and loneliness. We don’t understand why as we have people around us. So, we run away, escape, try harder, work harder, push ourselves into those “addictions of all sorts”1. We tell ourselves that everything is failing. The Triad make us believe it is because we are failures. “I am not good enough” or “I am a failure” are the most common and damaging self-limiting beliefs. We try to resist them. So, we push and push, crush and crush always furthermore who we are throughout intoxicating and desperate doings. We may even chaotically change again and again our work, our relationship or the city we live in, in an existential despairing attempt to find this mythical ‘greener grass’ elsewhere. And as any chaotic agitation of one in the water, one drowns; forgetting that they simply had to breathe and be mostly steady, grounded to survive.
It all sounds quite dramatic and as if I am catastrophising everything, doesn’t it? Consider though that it all happens over time, mostly unconsciously, and in many subtle ways. More and more researches and articles around the world describe the increase in people affected by anxiety, depression and mental illnesses. This is not coincidental. Decrypting how and why it happens, how to make it stop and create healthier behaviours is at the core of the therapeutic work and research. This is also what I thrive to do in my writings7.
This first part of my ‘Invitation To Gentleness’ might feel like a stodgy and obscure piece, leaving you with no clue yet on how to invite gentleness into your life. But if you think of any medical condition you might be affected by, you can’t start treating and curing something you haven’t examined the symptoms of. Simply putting a plaster on a bleeding wound will most likely be inefficient. Exploring and noticing the symptoms of a lack of gentleness and well-being is the starting point. This is the crucial power of awareness, one at the core foundation of Psychosynthesis8. Awareness is what gives a greater ability to choose how and where to direct our will to build up and nurture a healthier and happier life. Without awareness, we don’t have enough clarity to fully get in the driving seat of our life. Any growth process or change requires patience, practice and resilience, but firstly awareness.
What I tried to do here is to create some reflective awareness on our shadow, what blocks us the access to gentleness. Because if gentleness is about lightness, emptying our back pack from the rocks of worthlessness and powerlessness our shadow makes us carry seems like a good start. And in that start, we can already wonder what gentleness means to us, and what a gentle exploration and noticing of the dynamics in our life and within us could look like. Just wonder, gently.
THE WELL-BEING ALPHABET:
An Opportunity To Challenge My Inner Critic
I woke up this morning with an idea that popped into my mind on various occasions including before falling asleep last night: I would create an alphabet of well-being.
When I first came with the idea of this well-being alphabet, I got extremely excited and felt determined to write and complete it in a day.
Then I listed the words I wanted to talk about: awareness, attitude, acceptance, authenticity, adversity, being, bravery, beauty, congruence, care, compassion, connection, creativity, curiosity, communication, choices, determination, diversity, exploration, emergence, esteem, emotional intelligence (that one is cheating with two words when I first wanted to create a one-word alphabet), flexibility, fulfilment, fraternity, grounding, gestalt, grief, health, honesty, humility, hope, integrity, indulgence, intelligence, joy, judgements, jealousy, kindness, knowledge, love, loyalty, mindfulness, meditation, narcissism, novelty, neurodiversity, open-mindedness, ownership, playfulness, prudence, protection, quality, respect, rest, resilience, solidarity, survival, silence, strength, subpersonalities, thinking, togetherness, trust, uniqueness, understanding, vulnerability, values, will, welcoming, worth, x marking the unknown, y for you, z for zapping as letting go/moving on etc.
Writing that list awoke anxiety in me. Once more my imagination that is so rich and thinks and creates so fast wanted me to produce in a blink what would need a long hard work over time. I felt so discouraged, so overwhelmed. Why is my imagination so much richer than I can exploit and why does it always result in not exploiting it at all? This is so unfair. So much pain and emptiness where there could be so much creativity and excitement.
No. Not always. Not my imagination: my Inner Critic. It is my Inner Critic, - in the shadow of my consciousness -, that was creating my anxiety with that unreasonable expectation to complete in a day a fairly exhaustive alphabet about well-being with references to books and videos for more exploration. It could be the single project of a lifetime and my Critic wanted me to achieve it in a day, - in few hours if possible. Why am I so unreasonable with myself? Why do we crush ourselves like that?
It did crush me as it did so many times before. It crushed me with loud messages such as:
“You will never complete it. You don’t have the patience, the intelligence, the knowledge, the hard-working ethic and determination you need to complete that project. You are not intelligent enough. Who are you fooling when trying to create a dictionary of well-being? You are incapable. You are incompetent. You are a quitter. You are a failure. Give up! That’s what you do best, that’s all you know how to do! Stupid you!”
Then, I realised I had multiple and complementary choices. One was about rethinking that project. The other was about what to do with my Inner Critic.
I decided that I would use the experience of trying to write about this project to talk about my Inner Critic. By exposing it to you I want to encourage you to face this demon inside that crushes your self-esteem and gets in your way. By exposing it to you, I want to mirror many crucial elements I want to include in that well-being alphabet. Elements I want to invite you to reflect and explore about.
The awareness of my internal process. The attitude I can choose to have toward that process. An attitude made of acceptance, self-compassion, healthy indulgence, self-respect, gentleness and kindness. A for Awareness. A for Attitude. Awareness plus Attitude leads to C for Choices, and awareness and will (two major concepts of Psychosynthesis) are the pillars of E for Empowerment and F for Fulfilment. The Empowerment and Fulfilment of B for Being. Being Authentic. Authentic with my Inner Critic and its challenges. Mirroring to you what it is to take the time to breathe and G for Grounding yourself. R for Reflecting. I could go on like this a long time with the letters.
And maybe allowing myself to be congruent here, exposed and vulnerable1 is the best way to achieve what this well-being alphabet is all about. The best way to invite you to treat yourself better, to take the time to re-assess what is going on, the dynamics at play and the choices you may have. The best way to help you be inspired and empowered.
Maybe by exposing myself I will help you to listen to your inner voices and decide whether or not you let them control you, whether or not you decide to try taking back the driving seat of your mind and life.
I am taking back the driving seat by exposing my Inner Critic and admitting its power over me. I admit the shame and embarrassment I feel as a Counsellor to get stuck in self-depreciation and disappointing myself. The weight of experiencing myself as a failure for it. The challenge not to always know how to overcome my Inner Critic and how to achieve what I want to achieve. I am taking back my control. I am taking back my value, my worth as a human being.
I am feeling discouraged and being a failure for totally unreasonable and unrealistic expectations I put on myself. I say “I” put on myself because it comes a time where one needs to take ownership of the voices and deal with them. I am dealing with them transparently because how am I suppose to help you as my clients or readers empower yourselves out of shame and judgement if I can’t do it for myself? I am exposing myself to you as a gift, the gift we give in therapy2 as Counsellors: the allowance to be yourself, and to know that yourself is enough, yourself has no shame but pride to feel. Yourself is valuable, beautiful and worthy, even in the darkness.
What was before my Inner Critic took over and what does remain since?
My imagination. Rich, creative, exciting, joyful, playful and generous. My generosity, my heartedness and my kindness in the desire to write about something that could help some of you to feel better, to nurture your self-loving3 and your well-being. My care remains. The kindness and love in my heart remain. I genuinely want to do good. I genuinely want to help you as individuals to face and heal from your suffering and customise your life around your needs and desires, your identity and values. That’s why I became a Counsellor in the first place.
So what? Am I gonna let my Inner Critic convince me that I am a failure because I might not have the unrealistic productivity and endurance to create what my imagination gets excited about? Am I gonna let it tell me how to perceive myself? Someone not intelligent enough, lazy, procrastinating, not resilient, not hard working… Yes, sometimes I might be those things. Yes I admit that I would love to create in quality and quantity in the blink of an eye because it would be so much easier and because my imagination has more ideas than I could chew in a lifetime.
But if I have the humility to admit the impatience in my personality and the limitations of my intelligence and knowledge, I can also admit and recognise my intelligence and emotional intelligence as they are. Recognise the richness of my imagination, the generosity of my heart, and all the good in my intentions. Those are the things I want to build my self-esteem on. I don’t want to deny my flaws and my shadows. But I sure don’t want them to hide from me my qualities and my lights.
I may or may not come back to creating my well-being alphabet. Today, I realised and made a conscious choice that something else mattered more to me. Admitting my struggle to myself and to you. Listening to my struggle with compassion. Admitting my shame with gentleness and kindness. Mirroring to you what it is to accept my human hood and work through it.
I am not finishing this article unharmed by my Inner Critic. I am not finishing my article healed from my crushing shadow. I am finishing it in a space of ‘acceptance in progress’. Accepting the processes within me and that they take time. I am finishing with being proud of myself for letting go of an unreasonable expectation, for facing my demon and deciding to face it publicly. I am proud of honouring myself and my goal through all the well-being posts I can write by exposing my vulnerability and extracting strength from it.
I exposed myself today to honour my goal to allow myself to be who I am, to let my being shine, and to help some of you do the same whether it is within yourself, in your relationships with others, or in the world you navigate in. Be attentive to yourself, be kind, be gentle, be patient… You are more than your shadows. Be proud of your bravery, because very often the bravest thing we can do is B for Being.
1 The Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown
2 The Gift of Therapy, Irvin D. Yallom
3 The Self-Love Challenge: Why Loving Ourselves Should Be Trendy, Lucas Voclere