Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Confessions of a (Mostly) Reformed Yeller Part 3 of 7

We need to learn and practice self-compassion and compassion for others, forgiveness and the readiness to seek forgiveness.

So now we've dredged up all of this ache and hurt and pain and shame from our past. We've come to the realisation that if we're yelling habitually, we're trying to control situations and other people for our own ends of feeling empowered. Quite frankly, things can look pretty darn grim. And hopeless. And like it's all beyond saving. And the best we could do is sit curled up in the corner just rocking ourselves and moaning.

Where do we go from here with all of this mess sitting on the plate before us? How do we move through all of it to actually make it usable and serviceable to us? How do we go from the big gloppy, formless mess we're stirring in the pot to that crossover moment when it all suddenly turns into play doh which we can mold and shape into wonderful and fantastic creations?

I think the key is learning and putting into practice forgiveness and compassion, both for ourselves and others. Employing the ongoing practice of compassion, forgiveness and seeking forgiveness is how we take these immensities and begin to act in a way which is free from our past. Compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others is the key with unlatches the padlock on the chains which bind us. We still need to unsnake and wrangle out of those chains, which will take time, immense effort and skill; but we cannot even begin that attempt without first opening that lock.

I don't know about you, but when I really looked back, putting words to and calling to mind all that had happened to me, I felt angry. Really angry. Rage angry. Fury. When I admitted I had a problem, and realised why I was yelling, I felt angry at myself, and pretty much like I just completely sucked as a human being. It tore me apart; for awhile things were actually worse than they had been because I was just cloaked in pain, without knowing how to move forward.

One night about six or seven years ago, sitting with a bunch of college aged young men and women at a prayer group, two very fundamental things happened which began to change all of this for me. The first was the idea which came to me while sitting in meditation that my brokenness was my greatest gift to share with the world. It would take many more years to understand that this was a giant step in self compassion, which has been admittedly the very hardest part of this third step for me. Secondly, a young woman said something which just radicalised how I was viewing my own up bringing and my past.

What she said was essentially this: "I know my parents did the best the knew to do at the time, out of the very best motivations. It just happens that what they had to give wasn't what I needed." Boom! Crash! The lightning bolt hit me. Yes! From that moment I had a workable context in which to view my past. I could forgive the wrongs and hurts I had held onto, without diminishing those wounds in any way. Forgiveness didn't mean that I had to forget or downplay all that I had endured, and that was vitally important to me. Once I began to view things through this lens, I could also extend a knowing camaraderie to those doing the best they know to do at the time, even when their efforts are imperfect. Because , holy cow, did that ever sound like exactly what I was doing in my own life! Thus, the infancy of compassion also came into being in my life.

The word compassion , when looked at its root parts, literally means "suffering with". If there was one thing I understood, it was suffering. At this point in my mid-twenties I felt like suffering was key component and defining factor of my life. I began extending this understanding to reach a place where I deeply understood that we ALL suffer, that we ALL fall short of who we want to be so often in our lives. Conceding that we ALL have past hurts and wounds and broken places pulled me out of feeling isolated in my pain, which made my own hurts which seemed infinitely vast and unapproachable, almost magically and immediately more manageable. Feeling alone in our pain, I believe, is one of the key factors which keeps us from healing. Acknowledging that all of humanity is in this together with the very same struggles has been and continues to be completely and totally empowering for me. My suffering can now build and forge connection, rather than foster disconnection and destruction.

I began to view my parents and other people in my life very differently. Things no longer seemed so personal to me. It wasn't that people had wounded me with malice and foresight and design, but rather as a side effect of their own ongoing struggles with their own sufferings.

Once this began to really set in and resonate, it came to me that because this struggle is universal, it is imperative that when we wrong or even inadvertently hurt others that we must humbly and sincerely seek their forgiveness. To me this is nothing more than simply living out that axiom which is found in so many religions and cultures: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Seeking others' forgiveness is the bridge between our personal chasms of hurt; it's the precise mechanism by which our wounds can become the building blocks of connection. When we ask for forgiveness or apologize to anyone, we are essentially saying to them, "I recognise and honor the suffering within you which I have caused. I understand how much that hurts. Let's try this again, but this time working together, rather than as adversaries." In my own life, from the moment I realised this, I began to always ask my children's forgiveness when I yelled at them, or was grumpy, or detached or did anything which caused them hurt.

Even in those cases where I was doing the right thing, I became dedicated to acknowledging that hurt which they experienced, finding that common bridge between us. "I know it is so hard and frustrating to not get that cool toy you want right now. It's hard for me when I see things I want and have to wait to get them, and I'm a grown up. I know you feel sad and mad about this decision I am making. When we get home, we'll draw a picture of it and put it on your birthday list." I have tried really hard to NOT apologize for parenting (i.e. not saying things like "I'm sorry that it's bed time." or "I'm sorry we have to go."), but rather to save my apologies for when I had truly done wrong. "Wow! I really flew off the handle there. I was feeling really frustrated and upset that the dishes weren't getting done the way I wanted them done. I yelled at you. That was unjust and I bet really hurt your feelings and made you feel scared. Will you please forgive me? Can we start over?" I actively tried to learn to acknowledge the kids' big feelings about the parenting choices I was making. I was putting compassion into practice. We have had days, both past and present where we have had many, many do overs. I firmly believe that my personal commitment to seeking their forgiveness and forgiving them has kept us very closely connected over the years, even though there have been times where I was just an absolute mess.

When we remember that yelling essentially comes from a feeling and sense of having no control, we can see the immense potential power of forgiveness, compassion, and seeking forgiveness. We can choose how to view our past and present. Feeling as though we have choices, any choices, moves us a long way down the road to empowerment.

This brings me to the cultivation of self-compassion, which I have conveniently left for last, because it has been by far the most difficult, long and arduous part of this process for me. I really only feel like I have made measurable strides in this area over the past two or three years. It's an area where I am still really actively growing and developing an understanding of how this manifests in my life.

Unfortunately, self-compassion in our culture is very often pegged as selfishness. We receive the cultural message that '"good" moms are completely focused and centered on their children and husbands. Complicating things, we also receive the cultural message that in addition to being completely other-focused we are also supposed to be fit, skinny, interesting but not outrageous, alluring but not slutty, readily employable-though also completely content to stay at home--and all of this not for ourselves, but for our men and our children. Doing anything for self is completely verboten.

Reflecting now upon this, I see the connection between these ideals and why so many women eat or shop emotionally or become addicted to things like exercise or religion in ways which are destructive rather than constructive in their lives. It's just like the lying or refusal to do homework I mentioned in my previous post. These disordered behaviours come as an attempt to exert power in an environment where we feel powerless. They are merely misguided attempts to right a very fundamental wrong.

I lived for many years as what I thought was the dutiful wife and mother. Everything I did was at he service of others. As a "good" wife and mother I forgot myself completely, except when I would act out in some sort of negative way. Nearly five years ago now, my marriage pretty much completely fell apart. My husband wasn't really sure he wanted to stay married to me. And I have to tell you now in retrospect, that it was one of the very best things which EVER happened to me. I recognised that I was miserable; I was so divorced from who I really was that honestly,I wouldn't really wanted to have been married to me either. Having nothing to lose, I just decided that I was going to figure out who me was,
start just being me, and make sure that I mattered in the scope of our family.

I found the courage to insist that I had needs and wants. I was not only a member of our family, but just as important as every other member of our family. Being an adult my needs might not be as immediate as those of the children, but they were not somehow less important. Because I was dedicated to trying to be a good mom, meeting my needs developed as something complimentary to meeting the needs of my children , rather than in conflict. I began to dress how I wanted, rather than how I thought moms should dress. I began to wear my hair crazy, because that's how I liked it. I began to make sure I ate healthfully and exercised regularly. I began to devour fiction again rather than endless parenting books. I began to write again. Eventually, I would make friends with people who I would make sure I spent time with in a regular way, because I am a complete extrovert and am really fed through interacting with others. I began listening to music I loved, even if it was loud and obnoxious and not at all mom-ly.

These external changes, really paved the way for the interior conversion of viewing myself through a compassionate lens. When I yelled at my kids, I learned to not only ask their forgiveness, but to honestly forgive myself. When I failed or made bad choices, I learned to look at that objectively but with understanding rather than self-degradation.

Over time that self-compassion in the immediate, began to extend to myself throughout my past as well. I could now look back and say "Wow! I really caused that person a lot of hurt. I didn't know at the time how much damage I was causing. I really regret doing that, but if I had known then what I do now, I would have acted differently", but simply as a statement of fact rather than as berating myself.

Which now brings me to the present on my journey of self compassion. This is where the concept of my brokenness being my gift to others is coming to fruition. I can look at my hurts and wounds and subsequent behaviours and offer them up to others to be able to say "Oh yes! I recognise that in my own life! I am not alone. Maybe I can enact some change, too." I can see value in my failures and struggles, rather than just how badly I have messed up. Also in the present I am working on putting self compassion into practice when things get rough. When the kids are refusing to clean up, or everyone is wild for bedtime, or the house is in complete chaos I am learning to step away rather than immediately reacting, breathing deep and reminding myself "You are safe. You are worthy of love. You have a voice. You have power in this situation. You have the ability to make choices to build connection rather than destroy it. You are safe."


  1. I always thught I had to forget to truly forgive, and that made me withhold forgiveness from myself and others. This post gave me such a sense of clarity. I actually breathed a sigh of relief!

  2. God bless you for this post! My heart is so full of hope and joy reading this. Thanks for showing the way to us just starting or lost-on-the-way in the "recovery" journey.

  3. Thank you all for reading and taking the time to post a comment! ((hug)) I think there is so much power in sharing our stories and knowing we're not alone!