Shaming Yourself Over Past Decisions


Photo credit: Morgan Thompson

“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
— Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)

I went for lunch after church yesterday with a good friend.  It was finally warm enough to eat outside, and so we did, but still sat as close to the outdoor fire pit as possible.

I always appreciate it, when you get to the point in friendships where you can bypass small talk and get straight at what you really want to discuss, what is really pressing and feels most important at the time -when you don’t have to lay groundwork to have meaningful conversation.  Besides, there’s been more than enough conversation about the weather over the last few months to cover the rest of the year.

As my friend and I ate, we talked about the things that are currently giving us anxiety – the unforeseen things that lay out of ahead of us that we can’t control.  We looked back at decisions we made months and years ago and ask if they were the right decisions. Did they set us up for the unsettlement we feel right now, or will they one day prove to be the right decisions all along?

When people ask me why I did certain things throughout my life, I respond that they seemed like good ideas at the time. And this is true. I don’t tend to make a habit of willingly making stupid decisions that I know will precipitate unfavorable consequences, at least not regarding decisions that carry alot of weight.  Even so, in the attempt to make good decisions, I’ve made some really bad ones.

One of my great struggles in life is shaming myself for past decisions that didn’t turn out so well. The old adage says that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not entirely true in my case.  I have much stronger vision for pinpointing every single mistake I made and beating myself up over them year after year after year. My memory occludes the good choices I have made – the places where I stopped going in an unhelpful direction and purposely turned and started walking on a better path, or the times when I actually exhibited some stellar parenting skills, or the times when I really loved people unselfishly.

Nope, in my mind I can only see where I failed my kids, my friends, and myself. If only I had done this thing… If only I had said this instead of that… If only I had just walked away….or come closer.

I recognize that alot of my self-shaming and anxiety come about because of beliefs I internalized at a young age.  For one, I believed for years that God had a narrowly defined path for each of us to take in life, and it was our job to find and stay on that path, lest we risk screwing everything up.  I also grew up in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that offered little grace for mistakes and fumbling around trying to find one’s path. This kind of worldview only served to help me continue to fail.  How could I ever stay on that one narrow path? How could I suck it up and gut my way through life when I didn’t understand how life works?

Fortunately for me, my understanding of God and failure and bad decisions has morphed over time.  I’m gradually beginning to see those poor decisions of the past to be good things, in the sense that they have become my teachers.  I still sometimes doubt myself, and wonder if certain choices I made are going to cause everything to blow up in my face at some point. But when I’m at my best, I look at those “mistakes” through the following lenses.

  1. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I know I’m not the only person that does this – looking back on something we did or a choice we made and berating ourselves for not having taken some important fact or piece of information into consideration.  What I usually discover, though, is that particular fact usually isn’t available until after we’ve made out decision.  In essence, we shame ourselves for not making decisions based on information that we either don’t know or doesn’t exist yet. That is just lunacy, really.

I think this kind of shaming is made worse considering how much information we have readily available at our fingertips these days with technology and The Google. I know that I often unconsciously think that I just put in the right search phrase, or read the right book or website, or listen to the right person, I’ll find the answer I need for a particular decision.  I conclude, if I can’t find that answer, it’s because I didn’t search hard enough.

In many ways, this ‘information at your fingertips in less than 10 seconds” has not served us well because it keeps us frantically searching…or, at least it does this to me.  We need to be able to offer ourselves the grace to stop the information search at some point, make the necessary decision, and go with it, come whatever may.  To qutoe Theodore Roosevelt (and I haven’t fact-checked that he actually said, but it’s still true): “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  That’s all we can do. We humans are not omniscient.

2. My mistakes and “bad” decisions are my teachers because they show me what doesn’t work.

I read somewhere a long time ago that Thomas Edison said something about not viewing his invention failures as real problems because they taught him what doesn’t work. Putting a positive framing on these kinds of things can really make all the difference, especially if you have the right end goal in mind.

The goal of life is not to be perfect, at least not in the traditional sense of the word where we only do things the right way, offering up beautiful, always up to standard, results. This is entirely unrealistic, and misses the whole point of being human…or divine, for that matter. A much more helpful way to look at perfection is the idea of completeness.  The goal in life, I think, is to become complete, integrated, and whole.  This takes some work and alot of grace, and it certainly doesn’t happen through getting everything “right” all the time.  We become complete and whole by doing shadow work (see Carl Jung) and wrestling with the sides of ourselves that we don’t always want to see or acknowledge. When we face our “bad” decisions, we are at a wonderful gateway to begin facing and uncovering the aspects of ourselves that are in pain and need healing and integration.

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

3. Who are we to say with certainty what is good, or what is bad?

I’ve quoted him a billion times, but my favorite saying of Richard Rohr is “Everything belongs.”  If this is true, and I believe it is, it means that there is nothing that is not redeemable. God wastes nothing. How, then, can anything be completely, and eternally, bad?  OK, all of you people that are immediately wanting to ask me questions about the bad-ness of rape, and war, and the Holocaust…I saw that coming.  And I ask the same myself – how can those not be bad?  At some level, they are horrible, un-excusable, evil, wretched. But I firmly believe, that somehow, God can envelop them, hold them, and incorporate them into goodness.  I don’t know how; it’s a mystery. After reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written about the Holocaust, I’m convinced that deeper meaning and good can be found when you push through the horrors that appear on the surface of life.

I also look to the idea of yin and yang from the Tao.  Now, I”m certainly not a Taoist, or expert in Eastern thought, but it holds meaning for me. This is what I  can see from the little I understand:

  • Opposites, or the dual nature of things, balance each other out.  They create wholeness when brought together
  • There are no absolutes in life, everything is interconnected. It would be difficult to say that something is completely all bad, or all good, especially when we have a limited understanding of life and can only see one little piece of the proverbial elephant, as it were. We judge good and bad through our own filters.
  • Everything is changing and is in a state of process – what is now may be something different later.

And to end this point I’m attaching a famous Buddhist story I’ve heard many times from various people that makes the point quite well, I think.  I stole this exact version from David Allen.

One day a man’s horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?

Moral of this post? We need to stop shaming ourselves over our perceived mistakes.  We’re OK, and if we’re wise we’ll know to learn from everything that happens to us.  And for all of us that worry that our choices might ruin our kids lives (and I”m preaching to myself here):

  1. God (Life, the Universe, whatever you call it)  is working harder for our children than we are
  2.  We don’t know everything; there is no way we can completely predict what will hurt our children or make them stronger.  Those little guys are amazingly resilient.
  3.  Apologize frequently, ask for feedback, praise them often, and teach them how to contact a therapist when they are adults.

Back to lunch with my friend.  We are usually much harder on ourselves than others are. My friend beats herself up over choices and worries about how she will handle certain circumstances that the future might bring.  I, as a somewhat objective outsider, am wicked impressed with so many of the hard, difficult decisions she’s made…who cares if they turn out perfectly or not. I’m inspired by her bravery to step out and do life, and be creative, and love others.

Yes, there will be people who will love to point out our flaws and where we royally screwed up in life. But to quote the wonderful Brené Brown:

“UnMarketing: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”   And.. “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
― Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead






When You Live Life in the Hypothetical

Photo credit: Martin Brigden
"Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands. 
If you say them with love and the felt ferocity of that love and 
the felt necessity of that love, the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speakng, and don't worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all of those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy. 
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word spoken with love.
-Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early

I live life way too much in my head. In fact, it is a thriving cerebral swamp of stories about what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what could potentially happen in the future. I daily struggle against this quagmire of imaginations, and have to constantly evaluate what is reality and what is not….I’m really good at convincing myself of things that aren’t true.

My favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Richard Rohr, among others, frequently teach that the past and the future are both illusions.  The only thing that is real is the present, the NOW. Like so many others, I’m horrible at living in the Now. But even then, I’m not so great at living in what really happened in the Past either.  I tend to spend most of my time in the hypothetical past and the hypothetical future.

When I was young, my mother made a couple of really harsh statements to me that have stuck with me since.  Now, this is not a “my parents’ ruined my life” post.  My mother was a wonderfully complex person with alot of flaws and alot of strengths and virtues.  And I’ve made enough tremendous belly flops as a parent to know that we are all going to say really stupid things to our kids at times.

These two comments, in particular, wormed their way into my psyche, and I internalized them as being representative of my identity. I spent the next half of my life striving against those beliefs to prove they weren’t true. Every time I did fail, it just seemed to reinforce them. Actually, I think my believing them just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s the point I’m trying to get to: in my efforts to avoid living out the beliefs of those statements my mom made to me, I would conjure up every possible hypothetical situation related to them and come up with contingency plans to avoid hypothetical outcomes. Can you say stressful? It is exhausting to try and plan ahead for every possible damning dilemma that might arise.

One of the statements was about my inability to keep a house clean, take care of my things, etc. The truth is, until I hit my mid-20s I was an absolute slob. There’s just no denying it.  But I set out to prove my mother wrong…that I could, in fact, keep house with the best of them, and I vowed to not be judged by people that would come to my house because there wouldn’t be anything to judge.

Stop laughing, y’all.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was really the place I was in.  I would frantically try to control things to keep the house tidy. I would have anxiety attacks every time I failed, or the kids made a mess, or something wasn’t done to “my” specifications. It took me until I was in my early 30s to realize that all the people that came to my house weren’t the types of people that would judge how it looked.  Instead, I was killing myself trying to please “hypothetical” people – the snarky, snobby people that would surely cross my thresshold at some point and sneer at my home.  These hypothetical people are relentless…you can never please all of them, and they all have different opinions about how things should be anyway.

On a quick side note, it took me 25 years to realize that the hurtful statements my mom made about me…weren’t about me.  They were never about me.  She was simply putting her own fears about hypothetical situations onto me.  And when I say stupid, hurtful things to my kids…it’s never really about them.  It’s just me projecting my own hurts and fears onto them.

Like most people, I struggle with “what-ifs” about the future, and I try to make fail-safe plans. But I struggle more with the hypothetical past. I conjure up all the stories about the way things could have gone, and in my head, I struggle to figure out how I would have done things if one of those stories had been reality instead of what actually happened. If your brain is tangling up with that, welcome to what the inside of my head looks like.

Somehow, in my mind, I tend to believe that the way I got to where I am is not legitimate and I have to somehow justify myself through coming up with plans for scenarios in the past that never occurred.  For example, my parents were very generous and paid for a huge portion of my undergraduate education.  I worked part-time and got scholarships, but they definitely footed the bulk of the bill.  At the time, I would look at some of my friends who had no support from family, and how they worked and took out loans to pay for college by themselves. I would feel guilty that I didn’t have to do those things to get through school, and come up with a complex plan in my head of how I would have put myself through if my parents hadn’t stepped up.

Here’s another example…(most of these hypothetical situations deal with money or my white privilege or something like that.)  I’m single now after a long marriage, and am putting myself through nursing school, paying a mortgage on a house, etc.  My money situation is currently secure because of the way my ex and I worked out our divorce settlement and I freelance on the side. But I still feel the compulsive need to figure out in my head how I would have made everything work up until now if I was like so many other single moms struggling really hard to make ends meet.  Or, like so many of my nursing school friends who are having to take out massive loans to complete the program.

When I take on these hypothetical past situations in my head, I will almost work myself into anxiety or panic attacks when I can’t figure out solutions for the imagined problems that didn’t actually happen.  Essentially, I spend most of my life in the past striving to justify myself and the choices I’ve made by proving, in my imagination, that I could have survived other realities.  I spend the other portion of my life living in the hypothetical future, thinking of what goals I need to reach within certain timeframes to also justify and legitimize where I am right now.

This, as you all must know, is a complete exercise in futility. I’m only fighting with ghosts and apparitions.  The fact is, the only reality that will ever happen is the reality that is happening right now. If my parents hadn’t paid for my undergrad, that would have been my reality at the time and I would have made choices regarding that reality. But, reality was that they paid for college, and it helped get me to where I am now. Arguing with that is dumb.

The same with my present situation. My reality is that I’m in nursing school, I freelance write on the side, and I am doing OK money-wise. This is what life has brought to me and arguing with it or hypothesizing about every possible permutation of what reality could be is saying that reality (or life or the divine) isn’t good, isn’t what I need at this moment. I am where I am right now, and it is all grace. When I argue with what happened and try to control what will happen in a way that makes me feel validated, I’ve pushed away grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Julie’s interpretation of this verse:  You’re perfectly OK, right here, right now because you trust what life brings you. You don’t ask questions, you don’t try to rationalize anything. You just accept your “is-ness” as a gift. And since you know that life brought everything to you and not the other way around, you know bragging about it is silly.

So, all of this to say…don’t be like me.  Don’t fritter away so many of the good Presents of your life to dwell on the dead Past or the never graspable Future with all of their hypothetical could have beens or might be’s.  All we have is Now.  It is a gift.

Subluxations and Where the Light Gets In


Photo credit: Bipin Gupta


I used to think that chiropractors were quacks – until I visited a chiropractor who specialized in prenatal care, when I was 10 months pregnant with my third son and miserable with back pain. Not only did she relieve much of my discomfort by ever so carefully realigning my spine and hips, but I went into labor within 24 hours. By that point of my pregnancy, I was DONE, and very grateful.

Fast forward several years. I was doing alot of running, and at some point developed a sharp burning pain along the IT band of my left leg.  It would start hurting after only walking a few blocks, and so I let my running regimen fall to the wayside. No amount of noodle rolling, stretching, massage, or rest would keep the pain away.  I decided at one point to go visit a local specialized chiropractor who emphasized more than just adjustment – she was into holistic care – nutrition, lifestyle, all of it.  During my first visit she took X-rays of my back to find out where kinks were. Meanwhile, she explained that we usually come to the chiropractor for help when we are experiencing physical pain.  However, this is a later stage in our injuries.  Nerves that supply our muscles also supply our organs, and the same pinched nerves that cause noticeable pain also cause impairment in organ function. Furthermore, pain in the body that seems unrelated to our backs might actually be directly related.

This, as it turned out, was true in my case.  As I visited her regularly over several months, she would make gradual adjustments and apply traction to reverse the multiple kinks in my back. Lo and behold, my relentless leg pain went away and has never returned, even after I started running again.  Moral of the story?  I’m now a fan of quality chiropractic care.

This week Rob Bell interviewed a holistic chiropractor that he had met on tour, and they discussed the philosophy and history behind chiropractic.  It was a really good podcast…you can listen to it here. Early on, Dr. Beuerlein talked about the root meaning of the word subluxation, the term used to describe structural displacements within the spine. “Sub” means less than, below, or beneath.  “Lux” means light or illumination.  So, put together, subluxation means “not enough illumination” or “not enough light”.  Or, you could say it this way – there’s not enough energy getting through. Restoration of proper electrical conductance (or energy flow) through the nerves requires gentle manipulation of the injured places on the spine. Kinks must be straightened and the skeletal components must be positioned into correct symmetry for ideal nerve signal transmission once again.  Taking a pill won’t help.  The specific injury needs to be addressed in order to regain full original function.

Of course, when I heard this, my mind insta-beamed to Rumi. Love me some Rumi.  One quote attributed to him is as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I started chewing on both of these ideas in my mind, considering how this physical idea of subluxations is also analogous to places we get “stuck” emotionally and spiritually.

Our backs acquire subluxations from physical traumas – sometimes from big massives ones, and sometimes through small, reoccurring ones. The same is true for our psychological selves. Emotional traumas can cause kinks within our minds and hearts. They cause tangles of fear and beliefs that block love and life energy from being able to pass. As a result, we become disabled – handicapped in our ability to move through life with ease and freedom.  If we don’t address these kinks, we are more likely to grow bitter, resentful, and hateful towards life and those around us.

When we have injuries, physically or emotionally, we usually want people to leave our pain well enough alone.  Don’t touch it. You’ll make it worse.  And so we nurse our pain, and pull in tighter to ourselves, guarding our wounds.  The problem is, this guarding and pulling inwards only restricts energy flow more. We become more contracted and our pain increases.

Pain is actually a gift to us, even though we prefer to avoid it at all costs.  It shows us where we are hurt and the places of our lives that desperately need to be addressed. It reveals the kinks that keep our life energy blocked and hinder us from being who we are meant to be.

The trick to dealing with pain in life is to go straight to the subluxations, the source of pain. Attempting to fix my hurting leg where it actually hurt didn’t yield any progress.  My pain only dissolved when its root cause was addressed. It is the same with emotional pain. We can treat symptoms out on the periphery all that we want, but this won’t bring long-term results.  Light and life energy can only get in at the site of injury.  And this requires that we stop contracting ourselves, admit and accept that we are injured, and work with that injury so that it can be healed.

One more quote from Rumi:

“Don’t get lost in your pain; know that one day your pain will be your cure.”