Perfection is elusive. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Perhaps . . . life is merely about building muscles. If that’s the case, we need to ease up on ourselves. Could it be that this classroom we call life is one gigantic planetary fitness center? I tend to think so. 🙂
We shouldn’t use past regrets—or past wrongdoings—as clubs for beating ourselves up . . . but we do.
Becky and Duane provide two examples that I’ll be including in my book on guilt and shame. So, as promised, here’s a bit that’s going to show up somewhere. I’m not far enough along in the process to know where, exactly, but I’m trying not to beat myself up about that (ha—physician, heal thyself).
When it comes to life here on Planet Earth, imperfection is simply built in. The skater—no matter how well-trained—will fall. The car—no matter how fussed over—will get dinged. The plan—no matter how polished—will be altered. Count on it.
But knowing this fact about life doesn’t keep us from being hard on ourselves for the mistakes we make. Many people find it easy to forgive others but are hard pressed to forgive themselves. This shouldn’t be the case—forgiveness is forgiveness. Why be discriminating?
Fifty-year-old Becky is a perfect case in point.
“It’s killing me how I squandered money in the past,” she said in our counseling session.
Now her finances are pinched. Yes, she could be tempted to place the blame on the economy, but she doesn’t do that.
“I just didn’t plan well and I wasn’t disciplined,” she explained. “I spent freely and without thought.”
Her sense of shame ran deep—fermenting for a long time.
“How do I get beyond this awful sense of disgust toward myself?” she asked.
“Becky,” I said, “realize that the shame you’re feeling simply means you’re in a different place now. The person you are today wouldn’t have squandered money. Correct?”
“You’re ashamed of who you were,” I continued. “But you’re not that person anymore. A better choice would be to feel warmly toward that younger and less mature version of yourself—just as you would toward a child struggling to learn how to walk.”
I told her to imagine her life as a tapestry that she’s weaving. Each strand signifies a certain time period and aspect of her life.
“Realize that each strand has been necessary for contributing to the entire picture of who you are,” I said.
Like all of us, Becky cannot unravel what she’s already created. All she can do is step back and examine her tapestry, taking inventory of all the lessons she’s learned.
“But I’m so angry at myself,” she said.
“To be angry at your younger self is pointless,” I said. “And it will remain pointless until they invent a time machine so you can go back and yell at that self for the mistakes she made.”
Becky smiled—she caught the humor.
“I never looked at it that way,” she said. “Mistakes were never acceptable in my household growing up. We were expected to be perfect. Perfect grades. Perfect at sports. But once I was out on my own, I threw that all out for a while. I guess I really do wish I could go back in time and slap myself!”
“Perfection is never attainable,” I said. “You’re parents burdened you with an unattainable goal. No wonder you rebelled and went a little wild afterward. And now that same perfectionist upbringing is filling you with emotions of regret. You still have the voices of your parents inside your head.” Her parents had become unfriendly “roommates,” taking up permanent residence in her head, judging, criticizing, and generally being nuisances. Like all bad roommates, they needed to be evicted.
After our session, Becky was noticeably lighter. In subsequent sessions, we worked on her gaining control over her shame . . . er, unwelcome roommates.
Duane is another client who was riddled with guilt and shame when he came to see me. He had almost entered into an affair, and when his wife found out, she was devastated.
Duane loves his wife and family with all his heart—he never wanted to cause pain.
I saw them individually and as a couple for several sessions. In time, as he made amends, his wife’s wounds began to heal.
She has forgiven him, but Duane is still having trouble forgiving himself.
True, he can’t undo what he did—he can’t unripple the pond—but he can and has worked to rectify the damage.
The problem with shame is that its focus is too narrow and therefore distorted.
“Duane,” I said, “Your shame doesn’t acknowledge your heart and all the good you bring to your family.”
“Even though you are convinced that you’re undeserving of forgiveness,” I said, “the people who love you disagree with you. Shouldn’t you listen to them?”
In life, self-forgiveness is underappreciated. The people we are today evolved out of each messy path, terrible decision and mistake we ever made. If we hadn’t made those mistakes, we wouldn’t be who we are now. And unless we learn to forgive those bad decisions we made—especially those we know we’ll never, ever make again—we’ll just continue to torture ourselves.
When I bumped into this quote, I had to chuckle:
“In order to profit from your mistakes, you have to go out and make some.”
I like that. Not only are we given permission to mess up, we’re encouraged to do so. Sweet.
I would so welcome your feedback on this section: Does reading this make you want to read more? Did anything grab or pop out at you? Did reading this raise any questions in your mind that you would like to see addressed? Thanks!
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) 2014 Salee Reese