If you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly hard on yourself. In fact, I don’t think saying “incredibly hard” even begins to scratch the surface. There are those things we shake our heads at ourselves about, that don’t sit well with us and we’d never do again, but we learned from them. And then there are those deep, deep things we did or said that we simply cannot forgive ourselves for.
I believe that the reason we find it so hard to forgive ourselves these is that what happened is deeply rooted in shame.
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent nearly twenty years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of three of my favourite books — The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. Her new book, Braving the Wilderness, comes out in September of this year. She has this to say about the difference between guilt and shame:
“I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
When we try to forgive ourselves, we’re trying to release something that feels like it is part of us. We’re releasing who we were in the moment that we did whatever it was. When we forgive what someone else has done, in a sense it feels easier. We’re releasing a part of our past that isn’t essentially who we are.
And if we don't forgive ourselves and bring our shame to the light, if we hold onto, it filters into every part of our lives. It robs us of so much...
When I was twelve years old, my little sister was in grade one and I in grade seven. I am sad to say that I wasn't very nice to her, but on this day, she wanted her big sister to walk home with her after school. She found me in the gym where I was watching boys play volleyball. I told her to go home, but she wouldn't, so I pulled her out of the gym and then got the friend I was with to help me physically carry her out of the building. She was crying and just went limp in our arms, saying, "No..." I felt terrible the moment I did it and even more terrible when I got home and my mom told me how disappointed she was in me. That wasn't who I was at my core, but it was who I was through years of experiencing family bullying myself. No excuse I know, but I became what we experienced.
I held onto that shame for 40 years, and I journaled about it, and even wrote a letter to my sister saying how sorry I was. I never had the chance to apologize to her because she died when I was 42 and she was 36. But I poured it all out in that letter. And then, finally, I told someone I trusted, and I cried heaving sobs and bitter tears of regret. But I finally brought it to the light. It crumbled and burst into flame.
That one thing held me in its grip for 40 years as proof that I was a bad, bad, girl and that I didn't deserve love and compassion. Not from myself or anyone else. Everytime I tell this story now, I still regret what I did, deeply, but I also have great compassion for that 12-year-old girl who was so angry and hurt and jealous of her little sister that she would do something that she would never want to happen to herself.
We’re all doing the best we can in any moment. In hindsight, if you had known that your action would cause pain to others or yourself, you probably wouldn’t have done it, right? Even if you knew that you were causing damage at the time, you had no idea how much you would regret it in the future. And if that thing was done to you, it did not mean you were unlovable or bad, or deserved it — ever.
Learn from your past that you cannot change, but forgive and release that part of your past that keeps you there.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
kathy mercure is a storyhealer, storylistener, and storyteller. Her life’s work is to gently draw stories from her students to help them unlock their writing, find their voice, and heal their lives. Her passion is to support women in realizing their true identity as wild women, claiming their passions, and speaking their truth as they become their most authentic selves. (Photo by EagleSpirit Soul Shots)