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I used to think self-compassion was a joke. Actually, it used to anger me. The first time I read Brene´ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, it actually made me furious. I can still go back and read the notes I sprinkled in the margins: “how ridiculous!”, “this is NOT true”, “what a selfish pity party”, and so on. Self-compassion was not only unnecessary, it was hypocrisy. I would think, “ Who really needs a lesson in how to love themselves? For real! We all love ourselves most of all. Loving ourselves comes easiest. It’s loving others that trips us up!”
Now that last part may still be true about loving others, but I’m no longer sure about how easy it is for us to love ourselves. The more self-aware I try to become, the more I realize that I do NOT only struggle to love myself, I don’t even like myself on some days.
And it’s not selfish to set out toward self-compassion. In fact, it might actually be the opposite. How can I show kindness to others if I can’t even show it to myself? How can I teach my children to value themselves and others if I’m modeling self-loathing right in front of them? Can we really love others if we don’t even love ourselves?
What’s so wrong with self-compassion? Or was I actually reading a book about embracing imperfections, and chastising myself (and Brown) for even considering it?
It’s been a few years since that first reading, and I am on my own journey toward self-compassion. The more I read about it, and the more self-aware I become, the more I realize the effort I need to put in here- not just for me, but for my family, my friends, and those around me who deserve my love. Self-compassion is not selfishness. It’s living the way I want my children to live. It’s loving myself the way I want to love others. It’s learning how to be compassionate with the woman in the mirror, so I can do the same for anyone and everyone else.
I wanted to share with you a few tips I learned about how to be more self-compassionate, and so I created a little workbook. I want to share it with you here today, but first, I want to be clear about what it is and what it isn’t- and about who I am and who I am not.
This workbook is not a clinical study, nor is it a proven prescription for healing. It’s a compilation of ideas collected by one flawed woman to share with others. It’s a hodge podge of ingredients that have helped me, and that might help you. It’s a bit of a love letter, but it’s NOT a proven method. Please remember that.
I am not a doctor. I have no fancy letters after my name, and I have not studied medicine, or psychology, or psychiatry. I am not a clinician, nor am I a therapist of any kind.
What I am is a flawed but beautiful woman. I am a mother, a daughter, a friend. I am your friend, even if we’ve never met, because if you’re reading this, or any of my recent blog posts, and they’re resonating with you, then we are connected. I’m a woman being vulnerable, inviting other women to do the same. Perhaps that makes me some kind of activist. Perhaps today I’m just a guide. Or just a friend. I’m ok with that.
Please keep this in mind as you read through this blog post, and the workbook. Friend to friend, I’m just offering my heart.
I am starting to think that the first step toward self-compassion is recognizing the new reality around me. For this, I need look no further than Facebook. For you, it might be Instagram, or Pinterest, or your favorite blog, but my guess is that it’s some social media platform. Social media is part of our everyday lives. It’s our new reality, and if we’re not careful, we can fall prey to believing that what we see on social media is really how it is.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. We need to recognize social media for what it is- a record of everyone’s best days, best pictures, best stories- and stop comparing our actual realities to these artificial ones. I go into more depth about this subject in the workbook.
I’ve spent the last few blog posts discussing what I’ve been reading about shame, and how shame can only grow in silence. When we start to reflect on our own stories, and even consider sharing them, shame has nowhere to thrive, and it dies.
Self-reflection is a safe way to begin telling your story, because it’s just between you and your heart. In The Self-Compassion Startup, I offer a brainstorming worksheet to help guide your toward discovering your own unique and beautiful story through self-reflection.
The writer in me loves this step, but you might hear the words “journaling” and cringe. I know many women who hate the idea of journaling. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re getting out of this step, but I appreciate and respect your discomfort. And now I’m going to gently try and prod you out of it.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” That’s all I’m suggesting here. This isn’t about beautiful flowy words, or about publishing this for anyone. This is simply about getting that story of yours out of your head and onto paper. Journaling can be so therapeutic, another way to kill the shame.
These are just a few quick ideas to get you a step closer to self-compassion. But I’ve spent the last season considering this in my own life, working through these steps, and more, and putting them together for you in a workbook. It’s a simple book, not quite 20 pages long, with simple steps. But it’s NOT easy. It’s challenging. It’s difficult. And I think it’s so worth it.
If this blog post has been helpful, and you know someone who might enjoy it, then please share it. Wouldn't it be great to connect with women everywhere who could use a little more self-compassion in their lives?
I have been telling my husband the same thing for almost 20 years. I tell him, “Honey, you never need to worry about me looking at other men. I’ll be too busy looking at the women with them.” Some of you women know exactly what I’m talking about. But for those who might not, let me set the scene for you.
You’re with your husband (or boyfriend, or partner), and you enter the party. Maybe it’s an office party, so you recognize some of the faces and smile hello. Maybe it’s a birthday party for a friend’s spouse, and so most of the faces look unfamiliar. That’s not what’s important here. What’s important is where your eyes go. And where your mind goes. Because from the minute you walk into that party, your eyes leap from woman to woman. Her gorgeous dress. Wow, I wish I looked that gorgeous in a dress like that. Ooh, her hair. Is that her natural color? How is her hair so shiny? I’m already hiding way too many grays. Or how about her smile? Her teeth are so white, so gorgeous. She must have had braces as a kid. No way can teeth naturally look that beautiful. Yikes, I can’t smile at her, or anywhere near her. All night long, your eyes bounce from woman to woman, from gorgeous figure to beautiful skin, to impeccable taste. And your mind jumps from judgement to judgement. Not at them. At yourself. Every time your eyes fall on another woman, a judgement falls on you. You cannot stand with her, or her, or her. You fall short over and over and over again.
Does this sound familiar to you?
This is what many of us women do every single day. Comparison. We spend day after day comparing our bodies, our jobs, our families, our minds, to other women. And we come up short.
This quote by Teddy Roosevelt sums up most women perfectly. So much, so that I almost want to pretend that maybe he first heard it from his wife. Too many women know the painful truth of these words. The joy of any moment can be stolen by our comparing ourselves to other women around us. Once the comparison is made, the joy is gone. The fun outing at the pool with the family? Gone in one glance at the mom with 4 kids and a fantastic figure. The afternoon trip to get ice cream? Gone in one moment as you spot another mom whose kids are much better behaved than yours. Lunch with the girlfriends? Stolen away in self-judgement after self-judgement.
OK, let me stop here and turn to you, reader. Are you finding yourself agreeing with every point I’m making here? Are you nodding your head with every sentence, murmuring in your heart and mind, “Oh my goodness, yes! This is me. I do this all the time.”? Can you relate to my story? To the stories of so many other women who live this life of comparison?
Well, there it is. The fork in the road. The crossroads where we women stand, right now. The crossroads of comparison and connection. Of isolation vs. relation.
If comparison is where you always find yourself, perhaps it’s time to consider the other path. Where comparison isolates you from the women around you, connection brings you closer. While comparison hurts both you and “the other woman”, connection benefits you both, through encouragement and compassion (for both you and her). Comparison is a losing battle. Connection is a win/win for sure.
But how can we move from comparison to connection? I ask this with all sincerity and honesty, as I all too often find myself stuck on the rocky, downhill, comparison road. How can we stop comparing ourselves to others and start connecting with them? How can we move from self-judgement and self-loathing, to self-compassion, and self-kindness? How can we stop seeing those other women as unapproachable, unrealistically ideal, or completely separate from who we are?
Let’s brainstorm a few ideas.
1. Exercise Vulnerability
I think the first thing we can do to move away from comparison and toward connection is to look inward. Be courageously honest with yourself. Call yourself out on your comparison, as soon as you recognize it. I have been catching myself a lot in these moments, and am trying to call myself out. It’s not easy! And it doesn’t mean I miraculously move forward, away from self-judgement and into self-compassion. I wish! No, it’s not always that easy, but I think, like anything else, practice is making perfect. And so I’d encourage you to try the same thing. Try to recognize in yourself the specific moments when you find yourself comparing. Is it at the park surrounded by other moms and kids? Is it at the office, surrounded by other creative professionals? Take a look inward, and recognize where you tend to self-judge. Then gently call yourself out when you do.
Not only is it important to recognize our own personal tendencies to compare and self-judge, but it is equally important to look outwardly toward those “other women”. Chances are they have their own tendencies to compare and self-judge. You might see a perfect waistline, but what she might see in herself is her lack of patience with her kids. Where you might see her power in the office, she might only see her self-doubt with her financial capability. Remember that many of us women tend to compare. So chances are high that the woman you’re putting yourself down to is doing the same somewhere else.
Take the time to recognize the struggle for all of us. This will help you see other women less as stars on pedestals, and more as women just like you. Ah, the connecting has begun.
3. Be Beautifully Brave
We’ve all heard that saying, “The most important thing a girl can wear is her smile”. Cheesy, maybe. But consider it here. How brave would it be to stare right into the eyes of that woman you just compared yourself to, and smiled? How kind to both of you, to make her less an object of comparison, and more a fellow woman? Your smile is beautiful. I know it is. I’ve never seen a smile that’s not. So share yours with other women. Even the gorgeous ones. Even the powerful ones. Even the best moms. Chances are you need to offer it. Chances are they need to see it.
What other ways can we women move away from comparison and closer to connection? How do you help yourself move away from self-judgement and toward self-compassion? Help us women grow more connected by sharing your ideas in the comment section below.
And remember, next week I’ll be sharing my new Self-Compassion Startup Workbook right here on the blog. And it will be FREE! Make sure you’re subscribed here so you don’t miss it.
I discovered the work of Brene´ Brown this summer, and it changed the entire trajectory of my work, perhaps of my entire life. I could spend hours sharing what I’ve learned by reading her books, but I’ll spare you the novel. I’m guessing many of you already know about her, and those who don’t- well, I suggest you go read Daring Greatly ASAP (after you finish this blog post of course).
Brene´ Brown is a shame researcher and storyteller, and her teachings on shame, vulnerability, and truth have opened my eyes to my own struggles, and to those of the women around me. As I mentioned in my last blog post, these struggles have me taking on a new photographic journey, based on how women can be encouraged and connected by sharing such struggles and such stories.
Today I want to share with you a list of key words that I believe shape many women our age. These are also the key words that now define the vision of my photography and my own journey. I would call them challenge words, not because you’ve never heard them before or don’t know their definition, but because they may be difficult to honestly consider or discuss.
Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” (from Daring Greatly) There are a dozen “shame categories” when it comes to women. Among them are: appearance and body image, mothering or parenting, money or work, aging, family, sex, and mental/physical health. Who among us has not considered her body and felt shame for one reason or another? Who has not looked at herself as a mother and felt disconnected and unworthy? Brown teaches that shame is natural and a part of who we are, but that we must learn to become shame resilient, and see shame for the monster emotion that it is.
It’s important for me to pull beauty from Brene's list and put it on this one, because while it’s a simple term we all know, it’s perhaps one we all tie to shame. I know I do. We are all aging, but there’s something about approaching our 40s and 50s that has us seeing our beauty in a new way, or struggling to see it at all. Hair gets a bit more coarse and gray. Our faces show a few more wrinkles. Skin droops and weight is harder to lose. We’re tired and it shows. And we are not the same kind of beautiful we were just a few years ago. We are not the beautiful that our culture says is most important. This beauty shame is a difficult road because it threatens to disconnect us from others, when in fact it can do just the opposite. Through vulnerability and empathy, we can connect in the most beautiful, powerful, and lasting ways.
I love Brene´ Brown’s words on vulnerability: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” Truth. That’s not easy when it comes to our shame. But truth must be present. Being courageous enough to open up, to allow ourselves to be exposed, to share who we are, our stories of shame and struggle- that is the key which unlocks the real beauty, the real connection, the real healing. Being brave enough to be vulnerable- with ourselves, and with each other- takes shame and exposes it for the monster that it is. Vulnerability takes shame and turns it into empathy and connection.
Alright, here is where the English teacher in me comes out, because it’s important to note that empathy is quite different than sympathy. Sympathy says, “oh I’m so sorry you are struggling through that… that’s horrible and would NEVER happen to me. Yikes. Glad I'm not you”. Empathy says “I understand. I’ve been there too. Maybe not the way you have, but I get it. I know your struggle.” Empathy says, “Me too.”. Sympathy threatens to further shame and disconnect us, while empathy connects us in a beautiful and powerful way. Empathy exposes the lie that you are all alone. Empathy is so beautiful.
This might be a weird word to add to this list, and it’s definitely not one that Breneˆ Brown uses in her studies, but it’s my passion and my craft, so it’s important for me to explain how I see portraiture tying in with the rest of this process. The way I see it, shame breeds disconnect, while vulnerability breeds empathy and connection. Portraiture is my way of telling a woman’s story, so that she might allow her vulnerability to connect her to other women, to her family, to others struggling, and to reveal her truth- that she is beautiful far beyond her own comprehension, that she is brave, and that her story is important to her own healing, but also to so many others. Portraiture is a road many older women avoid. But what if it's one of the keys to connection, encouragement, and healing?
Why not create a new word for this list? I was having a conversation about all of this with a good friend of mine, as I myself was learning to be vulnerable and share my story of struggle. We kept referring to the words vulnerable and beautiful, noticing how one connects so strongly with the other. After a few go arounds with both words, we just started putting them together. Vulnerabeautiful. The notion that we are most beautiful when we are courageously and honestly being who we really are, telling our stories, and allowing ourselves to be open to others. Vulnerability is beautiful.
This list is the basis of my own story, and of my new photographic journey. I’ve decided I might have to be uncomfortable, and brave, and truthful, to allow my story to connect me with others- through this blog, and through my photography. I will not quit on my photography, nor will I quit on my own beautiful story, or the beautiful stories of those around me. This is my story. I am a portrait photographer, a teacher, a coach. I love to connect, encourage, and empower women like me through their own stories, their own courageous vulnerability, to reveal their own Vulnerabeauty.
If these ideas speak to you, here are a few resources for you to learn more, and perhaps come on this journey with me.
First, here are some links to a few of Breneˆ Brown’s best-selling books. (note- I am not an affiliate for Brown, just a huge fan)
The Gifts of Imperfection
Second, here are the links to her two TED talks. I found it most powerful to watch Brown in her own vulnerability. It was brave, and it was what made me actually see my own connection to her research and her story.
The Power of Vulnerability
Listening to Shame
Finally, I am currently finishing a FREE mini workbook called The Self-Compassion Startup, which offers a guide to using writing, sharing, and portraiture to find your own story, and to move closer to self-love and compassion. It's coming this month, but you can SIGN UP HERE to make sure you don't miss it.
To be sure, more is coming. This journey is not an easy one to walk at all. Vulnerability is scary, but it is necessary. And so I’m walking it. And I would love your company.
Have you ever had an idea that felt so outrageous, you knew you had to pursue it?
Ever felt a stirring so deep in your heart to pursue that outrageous idea, that you believed the only really outrageous thing would be not pursuing it?
Ever heard that voice in your head whispering, “This doesn’t matter. It won’t succeed. Don’t do it. It’s a failure waiting to happen.”
Well, I have too. I’ve been hearing it every day for the past several months, Today is the day that I tell that voice to SHUT UP and move on, because I’ve got important work to do.
Maybe I should back up a little, and tell you a bit of my story.
In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t written a blog post in quite a while. I haven’t shared but one or two portrait sessions in the last few months. Haven’t posted that much on social media, nor shared too much about Jen Lebo Photography. Because I had been preparing to walk away from it. I had been planning to give up my portrait business and quit calling myself a photographer.
A lot contributed to this decision, but the gist of it was that I felt like a fraud. Over the past few months, I took a look outside my own little bubble, and discovered that the portrait photography industry was so over-saturated, that I could find more than a dozen photographers in a 5 mile radius from my own home. I began comparing my work (no, let’s be honest here- comparing myself) to them all, and I would constantly come up short. It became a journey toward self-loathing. It grew old fast, and I was ready to quit.
I shared this struggle with a good friend, who completely understood, being a portrait photographer herself, and having walked a similar road. For weeks after, she would touch base with me and gently ask how I was doing with the decision, and whether I needed to talk. We would meet and share our stories, and even though I wouldn’t leave her any closer to a decision, I always left feeling encouraged, and feeling better. My discussions with her always resurfaced when I would toy with that decision to quit.
I realized that I was comparing myself to all the other amazing photographers around me. Constantly comparing. Never connecting. Never enjoying. Just comparing. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was doing this in almost every area of my life. I compared myself to other women, and saw myself as less beautiful. I compared myself to other moms, and saw myself as less gracious, loving, or nurturing. I compared myself to other teachers, to other friends, to other wives, and I always came up short.
But then a beautiful thing happened. I shared that pain with that friend. And with a few other precious girlfriends. And they all said the same thing. They said “Me too”. They said, “I understand. I feel those things too. I struggle with comparison. I struggle with my aging body. I struggle with being a better mom, with being a smarter professional, with being a closer friend, a more loving wife. I know how you feel.” Being vulnerable with each other connected us, and gave us a bit of courage.
It was so powerful to realize I wasn’t alone in this struggle. Powerful, also, to discover that this struggle seemed to grow in us women a bit later in our lives, as we moved into our 40s and 50s. A little less naive and confident, and a little more worn down but wise, walking through these mid-life years is not easy, but discovering I didn’t need to walk the road alone made the hard beautiful.
And then I realized something more. I discovered my purpose, my passion. To create a place where all of these beautiful women might share their stories, through word and portrait, in order to connect, encourage, and empower each other.
That’s when the voice showed up. The one that said “You are absolutely INSANE!”.
I know that if you are one of these women, you are probably thinking it too. It is insane! Very few women my age (myself included) have the confidence or the courage to step in front of a camera, especially on their own. Very few of us feel courageous enough to share our stories, to be vulnerable.
It should be noted that this is also insane from the viewpoint of most photographers. Older women are not a sought after target market. High school seniors, weddings, newborns, families- that’s where it’s at. Not older women!
But it’s that exact mindset that has me wanting to pursue it. As we women grow older, we become less sought after, almost invisible, if not to society, then at least to our very own selves. And I want to change that.
I want to show women my age that they are still beautiful today, maybe even more beautiful than they were yesterday. I want to teach older women that vulnerability takes courage, and that it is never weak. It is always beautiful. I want to connect women like me to other women like them, so that as we share our stories, and hear those precious words, “Me too.”, we will stop comparing ourselves, and start connecting.
And so here I am, standing at the bottom of this beautiful, powerful, tremendous mountain. I have so many ideas, so many plans, and I will create, and build, and share them, one step at a time. This is just the first step up the mountain. Telling that voice of doubt to go away, and sharing my story with you.
The changes are already starting. Jen Lebo Photography will become something new, both in name and in purpose. It will have passion and connection and a powerful vision.
Sure, it might fail. It might be my greatest failure yet. But I’ll be ok with that, because to me, the only failure would be in not pursuing it.
Please stay with me through this journey.
And connect with me if you want to be a part of this new endeavor (either locally or online), or if you know someone who might. I can’t wait to walk this journey with friends.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about a new project I hope to begin, called The Great American Portrait Project. Still on the early road to discovery, I envisioned a tapestry of beautiful lives, tied together through portraits and stories. You can read a little about that here.
After sharing that blog post, I received an email from a friend who asked if I would consider sharing her story. She was not sure it was part of my vision, but thought it an important one to share. I could not agree more.
Laura's story is one of grief. It is not an easy story to read, as I'm sure it was not an easy one to write- or an easy one to live for that matter. But Laura's story is beautiful.
Here it is, in her own words.
Thank you for sharing this with us, Laura.
I am a member of the club nobody wants to join.
It’s a club of unimaginable pain, of sleepless nights, of staggering guilt and despair. It is a club in which you question the very nature of life and existence.
It is the club of widowhood.
I am alone now, but not single like I was before I met Adam nearly 18 years ago. I will never be single again. I will always be widowed. I will always feel an emptiness in my heart, and I will always carry the burden of grief on my shoulders.
I have realized that no matter how long you have your love, whether it’s five days or 50 years, it will never be enough. Nevertheless, I am still part of the subset of this nightmarish club … the young widow subset. I don’t have a few years ahead of me to carry this grief, but a lifetime.
Any time is the wrong time to be a widow, to be left behind. At 47, I am caught in between. No longer am I the sparkling, businesslike 30-year-old in a short skirt and sweater who walked into a print shop, catching the eye of an even-younger free spirit. Now, after years of happiness, those skirts don’t fit me anymore, the shine in my hair is from a bottle, and the years have made their mark upon my skin. It is in this shape that I am left—broken inside and out.
Now, I am the awkward silence that fills the room when I crack a joke about death. I am the ultimate question mark… how will she act tonight? Should I bring up her husband? Should ask I how she is? What do I do if she cries?
The likelihood a widow dies in the first year after her husband’s death increases dramatically. I know this intimately. I have wanted to die. I have spent dark moments keening in a lonely house, desperate for solace, desperate for an end to pain. I have relived every moment of his illness, positive in a fleeting moment that he could come back if I just had said or done something differently. I have believed I had the power to control another human being, and to control life or death.
Because there is another subset to which I belong.
I am the widow of an addict. My guilt, be it rational or not, is real. I could have made different choices. They might have made a difference. They probably would not have. I, no, we, made our choices at the time, but the disease of addiction is a mighty monster. It claws through the best of marriages, ripping the seams right open. If there is a weakness in your marriage, it will find it and tear it wide open until it becomes that gaping hole of death and despair.
And people will judge. They will judge me. They will judge him—a man they didn’t know, who was a soul of unwavering kindness. They will say he was weak, that he could have been stronger. Those of us who have watched the path of addiction from beginning to end know there are no easy answers. All I know is that the disease took my love from me and left me in its wake.
I am alone, but not alone. I have been lifted up by a thousand hands … hands that didn’t judge, that showed me love beyond what I could have hoped.
And there is Bixby. Our dog. Let me tell you, the grief of a widow is such that even his life would not have deterred me from my determined path toward death had it not been for the love of people around me. They pulled me through for him. Now it is the two of us on this road together.
We both believe in love. He is by my side as I fight for my life; as I fight for hope and meaning when all seems gone.
In the late waning hours of a November day, I lay in a hospital bed with my beloved as his wondrous life slipped away. The doctor held my hand as I wept and cried out “I can’t do this. My life is over.” She held me tighter and just said, “No, your life isn’t over. But it will never be the same.”
Much to my surprise, she turned out to be right. My life isn’t over, no matter how hard I wished it would be. My life is not the same, no matter how hard I try to make it so.
The worst thing that could have happened to me has already happened. Together, Bixby and I have no fear of what is to come.
So, we look ahead. Sometimes, grief calls to us so loudly that we cannot ignore him, and the darkness takes over. But I am here to tell you… it is survivable. It is survivable because of love and compassion…because of family and because of friends.
I will bear this burden if I must. I will bear it so you may all have the life I was not granted. Your smiles are my gift. Your smiles are my knowledge that I will see the sun again.
Thank you for making me feel beautiful again, Jen.
I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.