I recently had the occasion to contemplate forgiveness. I bumped into the complexity of it while struggling with an old issue between me and my adult son. Curiously at the same time, a deep, old shame of my own kept floating to the surface. I found it odd that this 30-year-old memory would come to haunt me at this time in my life. Thinking about it, and wondering about the significance of the shame memory, it occurred to me like all the highway lights blinking into view one at a time, the dots connected and there it was – my inability to forgive myself. If I can’t forgive myself how can I extend that type of compassion to another?
If I were to create one of those surreal, William Burroughs/David Lynch kind of movies out of this struggle with my son, I would be stuck inside a bell jar… So close, so wanting to forgive, yet some invisible force (invisible to me, not the watcher of the surreal movie) preventing me from making that contact, heart to heart, that would let that forgiveness unfold. I guess the picture would then pan to me in the bell jar, and me outside of it too.
So I recognize fully now, one of the important obstacles in my life has been my relationship with my self, with my past, with choices I made as a young and dysfunctional 20 year old and the shame I carry because of those choices. I can say with absolute certainty that THAT young woman is no longer who I am. The adult in me says consider the context from whence you came. What happened then was almost predictable. You’ve learned, you’ve grown, you’ve made much better choices since… And yet the ability to apply compassion to my own story is somehow challenging for me. However, not doing so is no longer sustainable. I cannot abide this as an obstacle to having healthier relationships with my family. So I have a choice to make and frankly it’s an easy one: Forgive myself.
Sometimes our shame is taught to us from others. We are brought up to believe that what we want makes us shameful. Sometimes we are taught we should be ashamed of our success! Or our gender, our size, our smarts, our poverty (like we as children had any control over any of this). Imagine! Sadly, there’s shaming dialogue out there to fit any circumstance. And shame doesn’t discriminate much. It’s the heaviest and most toxic of emotions. It burrows deep to affect self esteem, health (yes) and general well being.
The challenge of forgiving oneself is most probably at the root of a lot of shame-based injuries, probably at the root of a lot of “stuckness”. In the end, what might lead me to forgive myself, is more my need to be able to forgive others, my son for example, and how sad is that? Yet had it not been for this catalyst, I might have opted to carry this stone of shame around inside forever.
The cure for shame is shining a light on it. Looking at shame and letting others see it causes shame to evaporate. That’s the power of looking at it. Shame grows bolder and stronger in darkness. It directs behaviours in unconscious ways. Exposing shame reduces its power and impact. This is no small feat, no easy task. And yet, without a doubt, freeing one self of shame is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.