Compassion is the wellspring of wisdom.

Over the years, I have seen that many students in my Time Management, Eliminate Clutter, and Overcome Hoarding classes have no compassion for themselves. They judge themselves harshly for having difficulties with organizing, feel like failures (and may have gotten many messages to this effect from others), have poor self-esteem, and often have nearly given up on themselves. They live with a lot of emotional pain, frequently self-inflicted. Constant self-criticism leads to feeling that they do not deserve to have good things happen to them or to be praised because their self-assessment is so harsh.

Self-criticism and blaming is usually based on having very high expectations for performance and perfection that would be difficult for anyone to meet, let alone someone who struggles with time management, clutter, or hoarding (or any other addiction). These difficulties arose over the course of a lifetime and cannot be wished away or resolved by only taking classes or reading books. Classes and books can help but they cannot replace the years-long, hard work of identifying and changing the small triggers of behavior (that are all that anyone can really change at any one time) and implementing and refining gradual changes. Behavior change is made more difficult by unrealistic expectations, artificial deadlines, and harsh self-talk. Indeed, classes and books can worsen self-criticism by increasing expectations for performance and improvement beyond what anyone can really change in a short span of time or without a very concrete, specific, and well-thought-through plan.

Changing behaviors and habits requires developing gentler, more realistic and forgiving self-talk and expectations. Harsh self-judgment does not lead to improved performance, only to feeling bad about yourself, giving up, and reduced inspiration, insight, and ability to perceive appropriate solutions.

Some people think that high standards of performance are essential, almost a moral duty, but this is false – many studies have shown that perfectionism usually leads to decreased performance and often to no performance at all. A little perfectionism may be beneficial and appropriate for designing engineering breakthroughs or writing a novel as long as it does not prevent completion, but housework, clearing, or organizing are not such situations. Even planning does not need perfection, but only a start – the effort will train you in how to improve.

The first step to becoming more self-compassionate is to become aware of your self-talk – our brains incessantly generate thoughts and emotions to which we usually pay little attention. However, even when unnoticed, our self-talk still has a huge impact on our mental and physical health, and ability to function. Paying attention to the language you use when talking about yourself with others may make it easier to spot these put-downs in your self-talk.

The second step is to actively work to change your self-talk: whenever you spot self-critical or judgmental language and views, change them to be more neutral (judgmental language is inaccurate because it has no depth of understanding, no allowance for contingencies, or support for growth), fact-based, and balanced. Re-state any negative thoughts that slip through to be more positive, balanced, and correct. Consciously correcting your own mental language whenever it strays into negativity gradually transforms your thought processes to become more positive, beneficial, and supportive. Identifying and debunking typical negative self-talk from a more humane and objective perspective will strengthen your resistance to negativity and enable you to become more positive.

[NOTE: Being objective does not mean increased negative self-talk: objectivity means seeing strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and pitfalls. Seeing only weaknesses or failings means that important characteristics are being overlooked.]

Three factors produce difficulty with time management and/or clutter and often lead to self-criticism:
- lack of systems to manage regular tasks, such as mail, dishes, or finances; developing good systems requires clear thinking, which is impeded by criticism

- lack of structure to ensure that daily activities, including housekeeping, organizing and self-care, are done at optimal times (i.e., before they build up and become a problem) and not overlooked or skipped; building effective structure requires planning and clear goals, which are undermined by negative emotions

- lack of consistency to maintain systems and structure so that steady progress is possible and gains are not lost; developing consistency requires understanding and constantly remembering your best interests, needs, and motivators, and putting these issues first, which requires believing that you deserve a better future.

No organizational difficulty is a moral issue – no one is a bad person or a failure for not having these skills. Being on-time, organized, or clutter-free does not make anyone a better person – perhaps happier, safer, or more comfortable, but not more ethical, kinder, respectful, or clearer thinking. So forgiving yourself for not having these skills is not only essential for developing self-compassion, but rational.

People who struggle with being organized typically blame themselves, but no one is born knowing how to create systems, structure or consistency. These skills cannot be acquired by berating yourself, but only by steadily, patiently studying the times when you do not act as you wish and finding the tiny triggers that lead to the undesired behavior, and identifying tiny, painless changes that will support the desired behavior. Calm analysis is the most powerful tool for successful behavior change (to say nothing of improved mental health and self-esteem).

Thinking “I will forgive and like myself after I have reformed” is backward. You are less able to change while judging yourself harshly. The time for compassion for yourself is when you need it most, when you are flawed and imperfect (as we all are, and always will be). Self-compassion teaches being more compassionate with others, improves relationships and interactions, and allows greater growth for yourself and others. Compassion for yourself and others leads to greater understanding and wisdom, and sets the stage for personal growth and happiness. Judgment closes off understanding.

So what does being compassionate with yourself mean? It means not applying language or thoughts to yourself (or accepting anyone else doing so) that you would not use with your best friend (and depending upon the nature of your relationships, perhaps even kinder than that). It means accepting that like all humans you are flawed and imperfect but deserve love, understanding, and respect anyway. It means approaching difficulties by problem-solving (ex., “What tiny bit of change can I create right now?”) rather than castigating yourself. Understanding is greater than judgment.

Being compassionate with yourself does not mean abandoning efforts to improve yourself or outgrow your limitations, but efforts to change must be based on love and understanding and use non-punitive means if they are to be effective. It means exploring self-improvement with a spirit of joy and adventure. Treat the process of self-change like a science project to engender the excitement of discovery (ex., ‘what can I do to persuade my body – which, like all bodies, inherently doesn’t want to do anything – to undertake activities to improve my life?’) and the triumph of mastery (as in, managing your emotions rather than allowing them to make a mess of your life and pushing out negative emotions to make room for positive, beneficial ones). Accept that you will always be a work in progress but that is what makes life so interesting.

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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