Recently I was on a walk with our dogs, Hank and Dexter. It was a warm, muggy morning, but the temperature hadn’t yet reached a point where we shouldn’t be out at all. The dogs were happy to be outside and getting ALL the sniffs in the neighborhood, and I was glad for some fresh air before resigning myself to another day indoors due to “heat dome 2023.”
The walk had been going pretty well until we reached the final leg of our journey: 11th Street. If you know anything about 11th Street near my part of town, it is SORELY lacking sidewalks and a safe place to cross the street. Normally, we don’t bother crossing the street at all, walking instead on the grass of a couple neighbors’ yards near the curb. This day, however, one of the neighbors had their yard treated, and we were going to have to cross the street to walk safely on the grass on the other side.
So we stood on the corner and waited. And waited. And waited for a break in the traffic. Finally, a medium-sized break in the traffic came, and my dogs and I started hurrying across the street. All of a sudden, the dogs got a whiff of something–either in the air or on the road–that caused one of them to zig and the other to zag RIGHT in front of me. I stumbled and flailed and skipped, trying desperately to remain upright, but I couldn’t do it. I landed SMACK DAB in the middle of the road on–of all things–my left knee.
As I looked up, the pick-up truck that we had been trying to beat was getting closer and closer to the heap of my body and our dogs in the middle of the road. I scrambled again, this time to get up and with a great deal of pain, while the pick-up slowed down, leaving us enough room to safely cross to the other side of the road.
I’ll save you the gory details. Suffice it to say, my left knee was throbbing and bleeding…and my pride was in a sorry shape as well. I was horribly embarrassed–hurting inside and out–so, naturally, I began berating myself under my breath. I called myself names, said things that are completely untrue like, “People are going to think that because I’m overweight I can’t even walk across the street,” or “I bet no thin person has ever looked so stupid.” I came up with theories about how people who “have it more together” (whoever they are) would never have any trouble walking two dogs at the same time, which wasn’t even the real issue anyway. All of that and more swirled in my mind in that short half-block back to our home.
I wonder if you’ve ever spoken to yourself in a similar manner? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we treat ourselves in this way? Why, when we make a mistake or we stumble and fall (literally or metaphorically) do we speak to ourselves in a way we would NEVER speak to another? Why are insults and put-downs and harsh language our default when we do something as HUMAN as tripping, stumbling, falling, making a mistake, choosing the wrong path, or any number of other very human things? Why do we insist on meeting our embarrassment and shame with mounds of self-loathing?!
I think it’s because we are vulnerable and, as a species, we don’t do vulnerability well. We try to avoid it by being perfect in some way, shape, or form, only to find that–inevitably–perfectionism is always out of our reach. But we beat ourselves up anyway, thinking that when we do it will keep us from feeling all of the discomfort and the messy emotions that vulnerability brings with it. Fun fact: It NEVER works out the way we think it will.
Brené Brown says that the first step in overcoming shame is to speak to ourselves the way that we would speak to someone we love. I don’t know about you, but I would for sure NEVER speak to my spouse or my parents or my family members the way I sometimes speak to myself. I certainly wouldn’t speak to anyone I love the way I did that day in the street.
I am reminded that Jesus gave us two commandments: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. I think it’s easy to forget that last part: AS YOURSELF. And yet, I cannot help thinking that Jesus was onto something. Perhaps Jesus understood in a way that many of us are still learning that we cannot pour water from an empty pitcher.
Sure, we can try. We can offer love and kindness to others that we wouldn’t extend ourselves, but such giving always breaks down. Either by completely depleting us, moving us toward an unhealthy hustling for our worth, or turning into a sort of performative martyrdom. The truth is that when we practice self-love and practice speaking to ourselves in kind and loving ways, that self-love fills our pitchers and KEEPS filling them. As we practice self-love and practice sharing that love over and over and over again, it creates a life-giving system of filling, pouring, and repeating. Certainly the world could use SO MUCH MORE of that than it could more self-deprecation and shame.
So this week, friends, join me in going easy on yourself. Practice speaking to yourselves the way you would someone you love. Notice how it changes you…notice how it changes those around you.
Learning to practice self-love with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.