Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously? Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.
OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.
Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient. And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over. Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)
I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior. The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.
I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.
Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:
This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when. I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.
On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early. I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.
For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline: “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”
It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image. My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments. And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs. I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this. Anyone feeling me here? Know that I”m talking about?
The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time. If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief. But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again. And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.
For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS. But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them. Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses. And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.
Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge. I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives. Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.
For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean. But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter. The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens. So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.
So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.