Excerpt from Life, Liberty & Covid (Ortman): "Self-Compassion"


excerpt from Life, Liberty, & Covid-19


When we blame others with such vehemence, it is a good indication of a hidden, unacknowledged self-blame. We used to say as kids, “It takes one to know one.” Another way of saying it, “If you spot it, you got it.” That is called projection, as we discussed regarding prejudice. What we hate in others is what we cannot tolerate in ourselves but disown. We get rid of what we despise in ourselves by casting it onto others and then berate them for it.

There is only one way to escape the blame game. Beginning with ourselves, we give up the harsh self-judgment. The first step in self-compassion, forgiveness, is to become attuned to our own suffering, which has several aspects:


During the pandemic, we suffer so many unavoidable losses. Our lives have been turned upside down. Most tragically, family members may have become infected and died. We could not be by their sides during their sufferings because of the quarantine. To keep safe and prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, we face many degrees of lockdown. At times, we have lived in near isolation. In the best of times, we have guarded interactions with family, friends, and others, keeping a safe distance and wearing face masks. We have lost our freedom to live and move about as we please. Many of the social events and activities that sustain us have been postponed. Our jobs have been cut back, threatened, or lost. Our future is uncertain because we do not know the course of this plague.


All of us try to cope with these losses the best we can. The adjustment is made more difficult because we have been deprived of many of our survival resources: restaurants, movies, shopping, travel, family celebrations, church, and so forth. With all the restrictions, we experience both excessive isolation from others and excessive togetherness with our families. This situation is like a magnifying mirror that intensifies both our strengths and weaknesses. Feeling depressed and anxious, we naturally focus on our weaknesses. We complain to others that we are eating and drinking more, gaining weight and possibly becoming alcoholic. We are more irritable and impatient with our families. We are on edge, and everything bothers us. Perhaps, our worries keep us awake at night. The list of exposed faults is endless if we take a moral inventory in this trying time.


Every day we make countless survival decisions. We are aware that the health and wellbeing of our family and ourselves is at stake in our choices. We know that the Coronavirus can be deadly, so we are watchful to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That requires constant vigilance, which is exhausting. We constantly ask ourselves if it is safe enough to go out to various places, a store, a restaurant, a social gathering. We wonder what precautions we need to take, whether to wear a mask or not, how many people will be there, how conscientious they are about safety. We make continual risk assessments, knowing that isolating too much can be just as deadly as exposing ourselves to COVID-19. Each of us has different tolerances for risk in finding the middle path between protecting ourselves and living life.

For example, one mother with two young children related to me how she was agonizing about sending her children to school in the fall. She said,

I don’t know how safe it will be. I would never forgive myself if my children got sick. I know the state and the school district are setting up criteria for a safe return to school. But who knows if that is enough? Maybe a private school with fewer kids would be safer. My kids are suffering staying at home. They are not learning like they should. And they are separated from their friends. I just don’t know what to do.


We are conscious of making all these choices in the shadow of sickness and death. The stakes are high. We cannot afford to make a mistake. The lives of our children, parents, and loved ones are at risk. We have great expectations of ourselves to make the right decision every time, to live and yet be safe. We try to be informed the best we can, but information about safety precautions is confusing, contradictory, and uncertain. We live in constant fear that we might infect someone we love. In the worst-case scenario, if they die, we would never forgive ourselves. Our standards are high, and perhaps unrealistic, because so much is beyond our control.

We may also expect that we will always be an emotional rock for our families during this storm. We expect we will always be strong and a good example for our children. Yet, we have our limits. We have our weaknesses, which the pandemic exposes. There are times we feel overwhelmed by fear, sadness, and a sense of helplessness. We may find ways of self-medicating that shame us. In short, we live with all the ingredients for guilt, a sense of not living up to our standards.

Our high standards plant seeds of moral perfectionism. We aim high. If we miss the mark, we judge ourselves an utter failure. We see ourselves as either saints or sinners, not the human beings we really are. In negotiating the perilous decision-making to survive the pandemic, we will make mistakes.

We have a choice when we make mistakes. We can condemn ourselves for our inevitable failures or we can forgive ourselves. Each choice has consequences. Self-condemnation leads to a bottomless downward spiral of depression and possible suicide. Forgiveness, which means giving up the anger and desire for revenge against ourselves, opens the door to healing and new life. We acknowledge we are better than our harmful behavior and take action to improve.

Read more posts about Dr. Dennis Ortman and his books HERE.

Read more posts on Covid-19 HERE and the pandemic HERE.

Read more book excerpts HERE.

Read more posts on self-compassion HERE.


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