Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. - Jalaluddin Rumi

Tag: Self-Compassion

Emotional Connection – My New Year’s Resolution for 2021

It is coming up on two years since I began therapy in March 2019. I think the pandemic has driven a lot of people into treatment. Good thing I got a headstart on it! This article is about my progress in processing my emotional pain and the importance of emotional connection in rediscovering my authentic self. You can read the complete article on my blog at

I have learned in therapy that family of origin issues are at the root of most therapeutic problems. I have discovered many interesting facts about my family of origin since I began this process.

My Grandfather’s Nickname

My grandfather and I standing outside his home in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia

My grandfather and I

One of the facts is that my grandfather had a nickname. He was a naval commander during the second world war. He captained a destroyer that escorted supply ships across the Atlantic to protect them from U Boat attack. He had quite the reputation with the seamen under his command. He was known as a strict disciplinarian. He wanted to keep up morale. The seamen referred to him as “Herr Pullen.” His staff experienced him as a formidable disciplined leader like a German U-boat commander.

He lived in a place called Chester Basin, Nova Scotia. I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. I did not get to see much of him growing up. In the summer of 1977, I happened to be working a job in Nova Scotia. After the summer was over, I spent a week with him at his home. I was eighteen years old.

He liked to sail. He had a small two-masted schooner harboured at his place on the Atlantic Ocean. One afternoon, he invited me out sailing with him. I had learned to sail in high school, and I thought I was good at it, so I accepted his invite.

Two Masted Schooner - Venture


Sailing a Schooner

The boat we were sailing on was a least 40 years old. It was designed and built in the province of Nova Scotia. Made entirely out of wood, it was antique and irreplaceable. My grandfather was proud of his boat and how well he had cared for it. I think he enjoyed showing it off to his grandson. The name of the ship was “Venture.”

It was a breezy afternoon in late September 1977. The sun was shining when he took me out on his boat. He liked to bark orders at me. I managed to do most things even though I was unfamiliar with the ship. It was a special time to be with my grandfather. I was feeling proud to be at his side as he deftly maneuvered the boat around the bay.

After a fantastic afternoon, it was time to return home. My job was to help moor the boat to a buoy in the bay outside his house. Then we could clamber into a dingy and row back to the dock. I had in hand a boat hook. It was a long wooden pole with a bronze hook. I laid down on my stomach just back from the bow of the boat. I had the boat hook stretched out in front of me, ready to catch the buoy as we slowly glided toward it.

As we approached the buoy, I reached forward with the boat hook. I wanted to catch it the first try. Instead, I misjudged the distance and dropped the hook too soon. It fell out of my hands. The bronze hook plunged into the water and disappeared below the surface.

“You fool!” my grandfather shouted! It was a loud, angry shout. It was the kind of cry that he issued to a crew member who had fumbled a depth charge, nearly blowing a hole in the ship!

My heart sank! I had just ruined one of the most important afternoons of my life. I felt terrible! I groaned as I watched the hook sink below the water.

Then something strange happened. The wooden shaft of the boat hook reappeared from the water just enough for me to catch it. I grabbed it, pulled it up, caught the loop in the buoy, and moored the boat.

My grandfather said nothing. I said nothing. I felt terrible that I had dropped it. Even though I had recovered it, I felt I was in his bad books now. I felt his disapproval, and there was nothing more to do about it other than to bear it.

You Fool! – Two Words that shaped my Life

Two words! “You fool!” It sums up the source of so many problems in my life. I can trace my father wounds; my mother issues; my lack of self-esteem; my feelings of worthlessness; my people-pleasing practices; my anxious attachment style; my avoidance of emotional pain; and my numbing out through alcohol, overeating and sexual addiction back to those two words and the family system they represent.

My grandfather and through him, my mother, believed perfection was possible! They thought it was possible to live a mistake-free existence. Their standard was complete one hundred percent perfection. Anything less than perfection was unacceptable. No one in my family could ever achieve it, but that did not make it any less worthy as a goal. There was no grace for mistakes, no mercy for error. You just had to bear your shame.

As a little boy, if I behaved and were obedient, my parents would love me. If I acted out, I got emotional, or I misbehaved, I was disciplined and made to feel ashamed. My parents would often scold me that my bad behaviour reflected poorly on their parenting skills.

To err is human was not true in our family system. If an untoward event happened, you could curse your luck, make a fuss, and perhaps if you were loud enough and angry at yourself enough, you would get a meagre measure of sympathy. Otherwise, it would be best if you bore the ignominy of it in silence. “Suck it up, buttercup!” was our family’s form of empathy.

I am Impenetrable

Suffice it to say. I experienced a lot of emotional pain, much of which I still carry around today, as I have discovered in therapy.

I used to be a believer in the adage of never opening up that emotional “can of worms.” I could not understand why people needed to revisit their past and talk about their emotional issues. I felt pity for the therapist who had to listen to people complain about their emotional pain. That was a nasty business, and I believed it could be safely ignored, or so I thought!

Not until my business failed, relationships soured, strain in my marriage, my children suffered, and I was busted for being addicted to porn did I wake up to the fact that I had a problem.

I asked my wife what it was like to experience me as her husband. She took out a white paper sheet, drew a stick figure in the middle, and labelled it “Mike.” Then she drew a large circle around me and wrote the word impenetrable beside it!

She experienced me as disconnected and closed off from human contact. There was no way into me. I was a hard shell. Efforts to connect with me were impossible. I was impenetrable!

I was not surprised by this description. My family of origin was not known for its soft eyes or caring connection. Having lived various experiences of being vulnerable, making mistakes and being labelled a “fool” for them, I became accustomed to building a hard casing of emotional protection around my vulnerable self.

The Battle for my Identity

Growing up, I was in a constant battle for my identity. My father was controlling and critical. He had no sense of boundaries. He saw me as an extension of himself hence the concern that I behave. He wanted me to be like him. He was a lawyer: smart and dominant. He was the “Alpha male” in our family. Always in control. He never let his emotions show. He could not understand why I would make different choices than him. He was embarrassed by my frequent emotional upsets. Toughen up was his advice to me. Be a man! I felt like I was continually disappointing him.

I attended a boy’s private school. I was the youngest boy in my class. The bullying was without mercy. It was the way of the British private school system. I was the runt of the class. I was insecure. I stuttered. I got emotional when the boys picked on me. I took things personally. I waved my hands about when I talked. It earned me the nickname “Gibble.”

Whether it was at home or school, I was in a constant battle for my identity. With my dad, I was a disappointment. At my school, I was a Gibble. I learned to hide my emotional, sensitive side, my authentic self that desperately wanted to connect with friends and family. The echo of my grandfather’s “You fool!” reverberated through my life, keeping me closed off and distant from others.

Over time I developed coping mechanisms as a “thick skin” to manage the pain. I buried and suppressed all thoughts or feelings that made me feel vulnerable. I became “defended against vulnerability.”

In this state of emotional shutdown, I became self-reliant and independent. I worked for no one. I took orders from no one. I depended upon no one. I connected to no one. I refused to have others label me or tell me who I was. I was the one to decide that, and the way I did that was to attach myself to whatever external thing I was doing that gave me a sense of purpose or meaning. What I did was who I was. I was the owner and operator of my own business.

Lost in the Shuffle was my Authentic Self

This identification worked well enough until my business failed. My identity as an independent business owner lost; I lost a sense of self. My shell was hollow. I felt like there was a hole in my soul where my identity ought to be. I had always defined myself from the outside in. I had not chosen this approach. It was forced upon me by my father and by my school experience. It became how I lived my life. It became who I was.

Some cancer survivors have this saying. “I am not my cancer.” Their battle against the disease is so overwhelming and continuous that it comes to define who they are, as in, “I am a cancer survivor.” Unless they consciously realize what is happening and keep hold of their identity, they are at risk of losing it to the label “cancer survivor.” When they do survive cancer, they find it difficult to move on from that identity.

Unaware of what was happening to me, my struggle for independence from my father and freedom from a bullying school system came to define me. Always having to prove myself to others or my dad became my life purpose. I had to tick all the boxes of the system. Was I a man? Was I doing all the man things? Was I providing for my family? Was I faithful to my wife? Did I have status in the community? Was I a successful business owner?

Whenever I took on a new role in my career, I would think about how it would impress my father or show others my importance. I thought with this new role; I would feel confident I could form relationships. No one could doubt me because I had the credentials or I had the success to prove those doubts wrong.

Lost in the shuffle was my authentic self. Without an authentic self, my wife and my friends had no one to really connect to. I was all about the current role I was playing at that moment. I was cut off from my emotions and my inner world. My authentic self was imprisoned behind a protective system that had as its purpose the goal of keeping my emotions out of conscious awareness. To do that it had to exile that part of me that was my authentic self. I became depressed, isolated and lonely.

This was my state going into therapy.

Like it or not, the Pain surfaces

After two years of therapy and one year of pandemic, my emotional protective system has completely collapsed. “This has been the most painful year of my life.” That statement pretty well sums it up.

It is like I have these beach balls filled with emotional pain. I am trying to keep them all underwater. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to pretend I am okay, and I am getting tired. So I am letting go of the effort.

My pain is surfacing, whether I like it or not. Some of it quietly, Other parts are popping up unexpectantly. Triggers are a problem. I am overreacting to emotional stimuli. I can become sentimental about silly things. Then someone draws a boundary, and I push back on it hard only to realize they are right and entirely justified! Then I feel out of control. I feel I need to shut my emotions down again, or I risk further embarrassing myself.

I want to connect emotionally with my peers, but I fear the pain of abandonment, so I hide my vulnerability. I fear the judgment of my former business associates because I failed to meet expectations. Most of all, I fear my friends and family’s disappointment and those who depend upon me to set a good example as a son, a husband, a father, and a friend.

I have finally been able to open up to my wife. Now she is experiencing me as “connectable.” The circle is now penetrable! Her empathy is helping me.

Letting go of the Pain

When I was seven, I was playing with a bamboo cane. I impaled my index finger with a sharp splinter. It was excruciating.

My mother rushed me to the doctor. When we got to his office, he was busy, so we had to wait.
His partner could see us, so we went to see him. I was crying and making a big fuss. My mother was trying to settle me down. The doctor was talking to her.

I heard a noise from the adjoining room. I saw my usual doctor there motioning for me to come and see him. So I did.

He was hiding something behind his back. I climbed up into his lap to show him my finger. Suddenly, he grabbed it, whipped out a pair of plyers and pulled the splinter out of my finger. I was so shocked I hardly said anything.

I sat in his lap a while, feeling the pain. He let me sit there. After a time, I settled down. I felt like he cared for me. I felt like he understood my pain. When I felt like he understood, I could let it go. I climbed down from his lap, and I went to show my mother. She was surprised and glad to see the splinter gone.

There is No Quick Fix

I have lived 60 plus years with a large splinter in my heart. For this pain, there is no sudden removal—just a long slow process over time. I must plod through it to get to the other side of it.

I wish there were another way of dealing with it. I have tried to push past the pain with a quick fix or a formula or a positive declaration. More often than not, these fixes are a way of bypassing the pain or papering over it rather than removing it altogether.

So, for me, the goal right now is to “process” the pain, connect with it and sit with it awhile. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Validate it. Take a deep breath. Release it. Connect. Share it with others. Let it go. Then repeat.

I am listening to a song by JJ Heller. I connect with her words.

“Loved” by JJ Heller (Youtube Link; Spotify Link; iTunes Link)

Do you dream of a home you never had?
An innocence that you cannot get back
The pain is real, you can’t erase it
Sooner or later you have to face it down, down
You have to face it down

You are loved

Do you keep your thoughts inside your head?
Do you regret the things you never said
You have a voice, you have to use it
You have a choice, don’t let them shut you down, down
Don’t let them shut you down

You are loved
You are loved

Do you feel the ache inside your soul?
You know you’ll never make it on your own
Sorrow is too great for you to hold it
You’re gonna break, why don’t you lay it down?

Freedom comes in letting go
Open up the window to your heart
Freedom comes in letting go
Open up your heart

You are loved
You are loved

You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved

A Lockdown Lesson in Self Compassion

Mike McLoughlin in his room in Quebec City

Mike McLoughlin in Quebec City

I spent the first eight weeks of Lockdown 2020 in Quebec City. I am sharing here what I learned about self-compassion that helped me through anxiety and the emotional pain of isolation. This essay is an updated piece from my Facebook post in May. For people’s comments and reactions please visit here. 

Stuck in Quebec City during Lockdown

We own a small condo on the edge of the old city just across from the train station. We visit La Belle Province every summer. In the winter, we rent to students. It needed an update, so I was there in March to complete a renovation during spring break

The day I travelled there, I heard some unsettling news that alerted me to the seriousness of the developing pandemic. The NBA halted their season. In Quebec,  Montreal looked terrible, but Quebec City appeared to be weathering it better.

We had a contractor to prepare the apartment for the installation of a new kitchen and bathroom. Everything appeared to be proceeding normally. Our contractor, with my help, had gutted the place. The bathroom had a new surround tub. There was no kitchen. Crammed into my bedroom were furniture, fridge, microwave and an unplugged stove.

Then everything came to a sudden halt. Premier Legault announced a cessation of all non-essential business activity on March 30th. The sub-trades left. The place was in a shamble.

This surprise came as a significant shock to me. The reno was half-finished. Thinking that it was going to be a short pause, my wife and I agreed that I would stay. But what I thought was going to be a three-week hiatus turned into a two-month stay under trying conditions.

The problem was that I was unprepared for an extended stay. I did not have groceries, and the messaging from public health was Stay Home Stay Safe! I tried to book a grocery delivery, but they were already overwhelmed, and it looked like I could not get delivery for several weeks.

The news on the internet was grim. Older men died from the virus more often. Some family’s lost their fathers and husbands suddenly in the prime of their lives. Here I was, alone in a clutter away from my family with little contact with the outside world. That is when my anxiety began to set in.

Ellen’s advice: “Be kind to yourself!”

At the start of the lockdown, I listened to an Instagram Live event sponsored by Brittney Andreesen of Wildfire Women. She was interviewing a Kelowna Life Coach, Ellen Reimer of Inspired Counselling & Coaching, about her advice during the pause in life activity brought on by the government’s effort to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospital overcrowding.

Ellen had practical advice about maintaining a routine and getting a good night’s sleep, etc. She also emphasized the importance of self-compassion. “These are unprecedented times. Life is not normal, so be kind to yourself,” she said.

Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the suddenness of the changes and the difficult circumstances, anxiety was a problem for me. My nervous system was telling me there was danger. Older men with a specific blood type and underlying health conditions were more at risk. I fit the profile. I have struggled with anxiety over the past year during my return to faith. Now it was back with a vengeance. Being kind to myself was a nice sentiment when life is predictable. My situation felt more precarious than predictable.

Fortunately, through the power of online tech, I was able to connect with my friends at our local church in Kelowna. Interacting with them via Zoom and then watching the online Sunday service was helpful. Kudos to Matti and Jodie Koopman, the pastors at New Life Centre Kelowna, who have poured themselves out being present online. It was a real lifesaver for me.

Sue (my wife) and I connected daily on the phone. We had a family Zoom call every Sunday. I had some “spiritual juice” during the weekly New Life prayer meetings and some encouraging words from the prophetic team as well as a prayer from Alexander’s Life Group. But overall, I felt I was sliding into a deep dark well.

Laura Duncan’s Story

Pastor Matti Koopman reached out to me and asked how I was doing. I told him it had been a rough time and that I was struggling with anxiety. He sent me a link to some YouTube videos featuring a woman named Laura Duncan.

Laura Duncan of Laura Duncan Life Consulting

Laura Duncan

Laura Duncan is from Redding, California. She has a life consulting business that helps clients get to the root of life problems. In a podcast at The Connected Life (episode 24), she shares her story (Spotify Podcast link).

The defining event in her story is that her 31-year-old husband contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease and died after 18 months. During her seven and half years married, they had produced four children. She shares her experience of his slow decline and death. It was a hard story but inspiring.

One point that particularly struck me was her emphasis on the importance of “processing the pain.” For her, there was the emotional pain of the sorrow of losing her husband. Then there was the pain of missing his presence in her life. It was the ongoing pain of loneliness. The memory of her husband and her life with him became wrapped in this pain of loneliness. Every time she came to reflect on his life, she felt the pain of being alone.

Getting through her pain of loneliness, was important not only for herself but also for her four children who had lost their father so early in their lives. Unless she could take care of her pain of loneliness, she could not appropriately memorialize him. Once she processed the pain of her loneliness, though, she could create space in their lives for the positive memory of her husband and the children’s father.

It struck me that emotional pain was a problem for me in a similar way. Over my 60 years, I have accumulated a lot of emotional pain. As a child, my parents did not teach me how to process my emotional pain. Emotions and the feelings that came with them were not welcome in my home. So I have always had trouble identifying and describing my subjective feelings. Without the ability to express these feelings, my emotional pain never got grounded adequately in a healing process. Alone, in a tense situation, I felt the weight of all my unresolved emotional angst. I needed to process my emotional pain.

Stuck in my emotional pain

Listening to Laura Duncan, I realized just how stuck I still was in my pain. Whenever I would think of connecting with someone, I would first check my “pain ledger.” If there were pain unaccounted for in that relationship, I would defer connecting with them to avoid bringing up that pain. In this way, I protected myself from further pain, but I also disconnected myself from essential relationships.

I remembered an incident in my family of origin when this all began. It was Monday, November 17th, 1975. I was 16 years old. A classmate named Charles Taylor had been killed in a car accident two days prior. It was announced at a school assembly the Monday morning. I brought the news to our family dinner table that evening. Since it was my mother’s birthday, my father told me to keep the news to myself so as not to disturb the event. I could not. I broke down, weeping at the table. All the accumulated grief of previous emotional experiences piled up, including another death of a classmate the previous year from leukemia. I made a scene, and I ruined my mother’s evening.

Later in life, when painful events occurred, this pattern repeated itself. An untoward incident happened. I became emotional, I told myself to control my feelings, but I was not able to, and when they erupted, I felt ashamed, so I stuffed my emotional pain.

Thus, I developed a “shutdown” reflex. This “shutdown” reflex was there to protect me from potential pain or embarrassment, but it also meant I did not have permission to have emotions nor feelings nor even needs since they all came wrapped in the shame of a potential meltdown.

This problem was playing itself out during my time in Quebec City. The emotional pain of my isolation and the loneliness had bound itself around me, such that I had difficulty reaching out for help. For those who could help me, each had their own “pain ledger.” This problem was the pain that I had not dealt with regarding them. To connect with them, I felt I had to deal with the pain first. But I did not know how to do that since I had trouble identifying and describing it, so I avoided asking for help.

Laura Duncan’s Big Solution: Self-Compassion

Laura Duncan’s big solution to this problem is self-compassion. She teaches her clients how to be kind to themselves. She helps people find a way to process their pain by practising self-compassion with themselves. According to Laura, self-compassion is how we are with our feelings towards ourselves. It is the ability to practice understanding, acceptance and love towards ourselves.

Self-compassion was a foreign concept for me. Honestly, I was ambivalent towards myself. I did not indulge in self-contempt, but I also was not enamoured of myself. I recently grew a beard so I could look different in the mirror. I felt I was looking more like my dad as I grew older, which was not a positive thing. He had always shaved, so I decided to change my look by growing a beard. Yet, seeing myself in a beard did not give me warm regard towards myself. I was kind of “meh” when I thought about myself.

Eleven year old Mike McLoughlin

Michael McLoughlin in Grade Seven

For people like me, Laura recommends getting a picture of yourself as a child. I found one in an old photo of my grade seven class. I was the youngest boy in the class, so I looked smaller in comparison with my classmates. I liked it because even though I was smaller than the other boys, I saw myself as “plucky.” The point is that seeing yourself as your child version generates a feeling of warm regard towards yourself that enables you to extend compassion to that younger you remembering your moments of disappointment, shame, and rejection.

Mrs. Westmacott my grade three teacher.

Mrs. Westmacott, my teacher in my Grade Three class

Next, you “visit” your younger self in the form of an adult you remember who was kind to you as a child. For me, this was my teacher in my grade three class, Mrs. Westmacott. She was a kind soul, always there to listen to me. She would say things like, “I can see you are trying so hard, Michael. Take all the time you need. I am so proud of you!”

A thought experiment in Self-Compassion

So, I decided to try practising self-compassion by using a thought experiment. I was going to see how Mrs. Westmacott would deal with a younger version of me who was experiencing the loss of his friend.

I imagined Mrs. Westmacott sitting at her desk in my grade three-room. I come up to her in tears. My classmate and friend has just died. I am so sad. She reaches out and takes my hand. She looks into my eyes. She says, “oh dear, I am so sorry for your loss, Michael. What a shock. Your friend has died. You must feel so sad,” she says. “He was my best friend!” I cry, “we were playing together the other day. I miss him so much.” “I understand, Michael,” she says. “I know it hurts. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to miss your friend.” I spend some time crying as she holds my hand. She quietly pats me on the shoulder and stays with me as I grieve.

With this thought experiment, I offered understanding and comfort to my younger self via the memory of Mrs. Westmacott. I feel validated in my feelings. I feel comforted. I feel understood. I feel like Mrs. Westmacott gets how I am feeling. I feel felt. And when I feel felt, I can let the feelings go. I can resolve the emotional pain. I can forgive. I can trust again. I can connect again.

This support is what I needed from my mother and father at that moment at the dinner table. They had no concept of the importance of the validation of emotions. Disconnected from their feelings, it is no wonder they were unable to attune to my feelings. There was no compassion at that table.

Now, however, I have a new memory. A memory I created to extend that compassion to myself. I still have the old memory and the pain associated with it. But now I have a new remembrance of how that pain looks when processed by a caring, compassionate person. The two memories overlay one another. The pain has been “grounded” by the compassion I was able to extend to myself through this process. This experience empowers me to release forgiveness to my parents, who wounded me in their need to avoid their pain. It unsticks me from the unresolved angst of that moment.

Soft Emotions versus Hard Emotions

Laura Duncan has a video on her Facebook page about blame-free parenting. Much of what Laura teaches on that video applies to general emotional triggers, not just those that children generate. She discusses the “hard” emotional reactions such as anger and frustration. It is common to react out of these emotions, but Laura counsels parents to resist responding emotionally. Instead, practice connecting to what is going on inside of you first. These are the softer emotions of feeling lonely, sad, and scared.

Getting to these soft emotions is what I was having trouble doing. As per my family of origin, I get triggered, I get emotional, and then I shut down. Being stuck in Quebec City by myself during a pandemic provoked my anger and my anxiety, and I felt shut down by it.

Following Laura’s instructions on how to process emotional pain, I asked myself what was going on inside of me. Recalling the compassion of Mrs. Westmacott towards my younger self, I was able to connect to that tender spot in me that was in emotional pain from previous traumas. My heart was telling me I was feeling sad, alone, and afraid.

What I needed and what I did to get those needs met

Once I knew what was bothering me, I was able to accept the current situation without being harsh or critical with myself. Acknowledging my feelings empowered me to do something about them. I asked myself what it was that I needed, and then how do I get those needs met?

My heart told me I needed to feel safe. I needed to feel comforted. I needed to feel I was not alone.

Understanding what my heart needed, I acted to address those needs. I stayed in my room so I could feel safe. I booked some Zoom sessions with my Pastor to receive his comfort. Then I shared my predicament on our church Facebook group page so that people could pray for me, which many volunteered to do.

At the start of my lockdown, I heard Ellen Reimer’s advice to be kind to myself, and I wondered how to do that. After listening to Laura Duncan’s story and her teaching, I learned how to do that with self-compassion.

Learning to practice self-compassion is a profound lesson for me. Without it, I would continue to be shut down by my emotional pain. Now there is hope for a way out of that pain. Through self-compassion, I have permitted myself to validate my emotions, to acknowledge my feelings and to give expression to my needs. This lesson in self-compassion is how I will process my emotional pain.

This lesson will change my life. I came to Quebec City for what I thought was a condo reno but has become a renovation of my interior life, an “update” I desperately needed so I can better connect with myself and bring healing to my emotional pain. It will also empower me to better connect with all the essential people in my life.

Postscript: Justin and Abi Stumvoll, who do the Connected Life podcast have an online course called the Compassion Project, I highly recommend it if you want an in-depth approach to learning self-compassion.

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