I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…


Photo credit: Frankieleon


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. 

-Brené Brown

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.





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