Tag Archives: guilt

The Way Ahead

I recently read an essay about honoring our past from one of the minimalism blogs I follow. I moved on to other things without saving it, but it continued to echo in my mind and I realized it held a deeper meaning for me than I first recognized. Of course, now I can’t find it again! Still, the blog is well worth exploring.

As I embrace minimalism , I spend time every day consciously assessing not only my internal clutter but also the objects around me. I’ve moved things around, put things away to see how my space or life felt without them, and let go of many objects and ideas.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

We carry a lot of our past around with us. One belief I’ve carried all my life is that it’s disloyal and even hateful to change, to grow, to yearn for more or to leave jobs, relationships or places. That belief (Who taught me that? Why do I believe that? Is that true?) has caused a lot of pain in my life. It’s made me fearful, ashamed and inauthentic. It’s encouraged me to be much less than I am.

The essay I read proposes almost the opposite idea. The author expresses deep gratitude for her past experience and the people who influenced her, and she honors them by going forward into the future.

What a disconcerting idea! At the same time I recognize some kind of truth in it, a truth I don’t discern in my own beliefs about honoring the past.

As a mother, I want to see both my sons being bigger than I am. That doesn’t mean I want to see them with more to have and to do. I want them to have more to be.

Photo by Bill Williams on Unsplash

I want them to fly free, the memory of our time together and the strength of my love and our connection the wind beneath their wings that takes them onward and upward.

Yet I don’t give myself the same permission. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a big step forward in my own growth, health and understanding without feeling it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness and well-being. It always seems wrong—a betrayal, an abandonment or a rejection.

It comes down to a choice between my own needs and the needs and demands of others. I never seem to be able to accommodate both myself and those around me. Until very recently, I’ve inevitably chosen to meet the needs of others rather than my own.

Today is built on all our yesterdays. If I lived in an empty room with nothing in it, my past would still have shaped today. I’d still remember my personal history, my family, my children, old friends and places, beloved animals, old activities and interests. Past loves and influences wouldn’t disappear from my life without my things. Forgotten or remembered, my past would still be with me and within me.

I can’t live in the past, though, any more than I can in the future. I can only live now.

I love this attic workspace, but one day I’ll leave it, as I left my beloved little home in Colorado four and a half years ago. It’s not the lack of love, respect or gratitude that moves me into the future. It’s the ebb and flow of my life, the call of possibility, the itch of curiosity. My future self calls out to me, holding out her hands in encouragement, and I must answer the call.

Maybe our cultural obsession with things is about fear, or greed, or numbness or nostalgia. Maybe it’s about all those and others, too. I don’t know. But the idea that the best way to honor the past is to be fully in the present and consent to move ahead into the future seems blessedly simple, uncomplicated and unencumbered.

I’ve always longed for security. I’ve longed for relationships that don’t change, love and tenderness I can count on, the ability to give and receive promises and vows that never break.

I’ve also longed to be wild and free, to live a life that feels real and true, to be with others who both give and receive unconditional love and don’t seek power over those around them.

Objects will give me neither security nor freedom. Today I have a few favorite things that I wear, use or live with. Some are new favorites and some are old favorites, handed down from my family.

Everything else is just stuff that’s here. I don’t really notice it unless I think about it, but I don’t need all these things and they’re weighing me down. A year from now my current favorites might no longer serve and I’ll let them go in turn.

As I write about it, this process sounds healthy, normal and natural. As I do it, guilt and shame tear at me. It seems to me that even growing up was hurtful; a deliberate betrayal and abandonment of my family. The least I can do is hang on to all the objects inherited or gifted by earlier generations.

But why? Does hanging on to such things really demonstrate love, respect or gratitude? Would my great-great grandmother expect me to cherish and care for something that belonged to her but has no meaning for me? If she did expect it, are her expectations more important than my wants and desires? Would she want me to make my life a shrine to her memory or go forward into my own life and follow my own path? What honors the memory of our ancestors the best?

Honoring the past by moving toward the future. Could it be that clean and easy? Could it be that elegant? If I live a life of meaning and purpose that does not include reverence for every object, tradition and idea I was brought up with or exposed to, are the ghosts of my past pleased or will they turn away and disown me?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what I need to do.

Making my way forward in order to honor my past. My daily crime.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Shame on You!

I’ve been thinking a great deal about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.

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Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.

All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame that I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?

I learned in emotional intelligence training that our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others are pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.

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Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.

An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing that none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.

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After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.

This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?

After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover that any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!

Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize that I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker that’s attached to other feelings.

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!

I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now that I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.

It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.

I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?

Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.

I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!

Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way.  Joe Blow  (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.

Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.

Quite a difference, right?

I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found that helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.

We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.

My daily crime.

Photo by Yuan Yue on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Unforgiven

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
― Oscar Wilde

It’s been a chaotic week for me of fear, memories, fire, grief, a couple of new friends and unfinished emotional business resulting in a foul snarl of neglected feelings. Also, in common with millions of others, we are sweltering under a heavy blanket of heat and humidity and I feel about as attractive, energetic and friendly as a slime mold.

My old home place, my old community in Colorado, is burning. I’m not there. I’m glad I’m not there.

I should be there. I hate myself for not being there.

I’ve written before about blessing the ground between us . Now my mind is filled with the ground I once lived on, and all I can see are the horrifying images of flames, smoke, the ashy remains of structures and scorched land. I spend hours every day searching the web for updates from local command and incident centers, the local papers, TV and radio and residents who post pictures and videos. I watch interviews with old friends and weep. I see video clips of my town and it’s like a ghost town, the streets empty and everything looking sere and dry because of drought. Towers of smoke loom and the air is an eerie sullen color. This should be the height of the tourist season there, the streets busy, flowers growing, and shade trees green and cool.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

Now there are tens of thousands of scorched acres between me and my memories of that place. I bless the ground between us. Given time and water, it will renew, but I think water is no longer a certainty and my lifetime will have run its course before the land recovers and the forests regrow. In a strange sort of way, the desolation of all that scorched earth echoes the desolation I feel as I watch nations, communities, and people become more divisive and competitive. It seems we’re getting more and more skilled all the time at scorching the ground between us, soaking it in blood and then sowing it with salt.  We do not forgive differences. We carry hatred between peoples from one generation to the next, and many are at work in the world to increase the divisions by fanning the flames with rhetoric and disinformation, and pouring gasoline onto the fire in the form of resentment, ignorance, shame, guilt and fear.

We do not forgive. We are not forgiven.

Never have despair, powerlessness and fear seemed so darkly seductive to me as they do in these times. My experience is only an infinitesimal part of what’s happening now on Planet Earth, and I’m quite sure we have not yet descended as far as we’re going to. At times, it’s only by deliberately stoking my stubbornness and will and refusing to take my gaze away from where my power is that I continue to cling to faith in some kind of a cosmic balance and plan in spite of fear.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about my family and dealing with some of the aforementioned unfinished business. I’ve written letters, both to the dead and to the living, some that have been sent and others that never will be. As I make new friends, I listen to what we talk about, watch how we get to know one another and feel the flowing give and take of compassion and support that healthy female friendships create.

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Over and over again, in all these places in my life, I stumble upon the theme forgiveness: The power of it; the terrible, helpless pain of feeling unforgiven; the weapon we make of it; the fear that we will not be — cannot be — forgiven for whatever our particular stain or shame is. I have lately asked myself and others: Am I unforgivable? Can that be true? Can love be true without forgiveness? How do I continue to demonstrate love and connection in the face of obdurate unforgiveness? When others told me I was unforgivable, did they mean it, or am I still bleeding over something they have, in fact, forgiven?

It struck me this morning, as I lay in bed at 6:00 a.m. with the rattling roar of the window air conditioner in my ears and the damp sheet over my sweaty body, that I’ve once again lost my way, been seduced by the false comfort of victimhood. I’ve been lost in the tangled maze of all those messy feelings and forgotten, temporarily, that the point is not what anyone else does about forgiveness. The point is, and the power resides in, what I do with it. Furthermore, the biggest question of all is the one I haven’t been asking.

Can I, do I, will I forgive myself?

That’s where my power is.

East Peak Fire, Huerfano County, CO 2013

Can I forgive myself for living in this lovely green, lush, landscape where we do still have water? Can I forgive myself for reading the signs of what was to come in the long, unending drought and fires in my old place and leaving before I was forced out by climate change and fire? Can I forgive myself for the mother, daughter and sister I was and am? Can I forgive myself for loving, trusting, hoping, believing, trying, accommodating, pleasing and failing? Can I forgive myself for all the years of neglect, silencing and abuse I colluded with and perpetrated toward myself? Can I forgive myself for now recognizing and responding to my own feelings and needs first? Can I forgive myself for writing or speaking the simple truth?

Forgiveness is a slippery concept, like tolerance. I don’t think of forgiving as forgetting. I’d be foolish to forget what I’ve learned as I interact with others. I’ll cripple myself if I don’t forgive. For me, forgiveness is an integral part of loving. Forgetting is not. Nor do I equate forgiveness with trust. Trust can be lost and rebuilt, but it takes time. Trust depends on forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t necessarily include trust.

I’m not at all sure we can create a better world together without forgiveness. I’m quite sure we won’t forgive one another if we’re unable to forgive ourselves. As resources shrink, we’re going to be forced onto a more level playing field in terms of our standard of living. Some of us have a lot more to lose than others. The have-nots are filled with rage. The haves are filled with fear.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

There will be a lot to learn in the years ahead. I might as well start now to work with forgiveness, to befriend it, to embrace it, and to talk about it. Forgiving and letting go are both easier for me to do externally than internally, but internal work is the one place where we all have equal power. That’s where it must begin. We’re going to need our power, and we’re going to need to manage it well in order to survive. When our houses, businesses, cars and stuff disappear in fire, storm and flood, when our arable land becomes too hot to grow food, when no water comes from the tap and when money no longer allows us to pretend it’s not all happening, then we will rediscover what true power is, and then perhaps we can begin to bless the ground between us, forgive what has come before, and find new ways to collaborate and cooperate with the living system we call Earth.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stop begging others for forgiveness and concentrate on the places where I have power. Others may think of me as unforgivable, but I needn’t agree, and no one can prevent me from forgiving another.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections

My road to self-forgiveness may be long. It’s hard to take back the power of forgiveness, because now I have to be responsible for granting or withholding it. In some ways, it’s easier to beg others for it. If it’s not forthcoming from others, well, it’s not my fault. The path of self-forgiveness, though, is all up to me. It will be interesting to discover what sort of shame, guilt and self-loathing lurk in my internal terrain. It will be interesting to challenge the power of what others will think and navigate by my own stars and compass. It will be interesting to put out fires on my side and observe whether others are invested in keeping them smoldering or assist in quenching them so the ground between us can heal.

Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that maps the journey of self-forgiveness. It’s a good map. I’m taking it with me.

Do Not Be Ashamed

You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.

Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.

They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.

And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.

They will no longer need to pursue you.

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.

Photo by Yuan Yue on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted