Some of the most brutal weapons ever used against me were crafted and wielded by my own hands, forged in grief and self-loathing out of the words of others. In my better moments, I recognize that while another’s frustration with me frequently may be justified, any cruel words towards me never are, and are more a reflection of their speakers’ relationship with themselves than of any facts about me.
The parent who criticized me for being a “crybaby” saw in me a freedom of emotion that challenged the stoic denial of their own pain. The friend who criticized my optimism as “naïveté” and ignorance resented their own lack of hope about their future. The loved one who lashed out against my precious family deeply wished to experience that profound sense of belonging and acceptance that they’d not yet allowed themselves to feel.
In my heavier moments, when I’m questioning my choices and feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with adulthood, parenthood, and awareness, those words slither back into my brain, taking hold of my memory and trying to convince me of my own inadequacy and brokenness. Hopeful Me looks at my traits – my sensitivity, optimism, and devotion to loved ones – as strengths to be honed into tools I can use for my good and that of the world. Overwhelmed Me looks as these same traits as evidence of my damage – artifacts left behind by childhood trauma and occasional adulthood bouts of depression and anxiety.
Hopeful Me looks at mistakes I’ve made and opportunities I’ve mismanaged as teachers and lessons – resilience-building ass-kickings that pushed me forward into knowledge of my own power and that helped me find my voice. Overwhelmed Me looks at these experiences as a litany of examples of my own inability to “get it together” and adult with some semblance of competence. And the words – the words others have thrown my way, thoughtlessly or intentionally – that try to sabotage my belief in myself? Hopeful Me doesn’t give them a second thought; Overwhelmed Me squeezes them tight in her grubby fists like a toddler refusing to let go of someone else’s trash.
When I take those words in, breathe them in and let them expand to fill my darker moods and disappointment in myself, they chip away at my belief in my own healing power and self-worth. Worse yet, they sharpen their tips and slip back out my mouth, fiery-tongued words of annoyance and frustration lobbed at others in anxious moments. I realize as they escape my lips that they are words of my own frustration with myself, aimed at others, continuing the cycle of word-injuries that absorb and spew back in tides and storms.
This is a cycle I have chosen and continue to choose to disrupt in myself, with some success. It’s a cycle I do not desire to play a part in for others. Ultimately, it’s a cycle that feeds on shame and lives in the past, and that relies on our inability to forgive ourselves and others. Guilt is a feeling of regret for having made a mistake – a feeling that motivates us to make amends, to repair our relationships, and to change our behavior. Shame is a feeling of being fundamentally defective due to our own imperfections – a feeling that motivates us to hide from or push away those we’ve hurt, to set our relationships on fire, and to get stuck in self-harming behaviors. The piece that turns shame into guilt and harm into amends is forgiveness.
I’m not much of a fan of the standard narratives of forgiveness, which emphasize forgiveness as a moment rather than a process, as a reconciliation rather than a letting go. I don’t believe we are under any obligation to absolve people of the harm they have caused us before they have acknowledged their parts in wrongdoing, and I don’t believe that allowing those who have harmed us continued access to our hearts and lives is any sort of spiritual ideal. I don’t believe that forgiveness offered before the wound is truly assessed and treated has any lasting transformative power. I do believe that self-forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and those who love us.
When we get ourselves unstuck from our pasts, we are able to show up for ourselves in newly (and truly) hopeful ways, and to be present for others in our lives in ways that are authentic and unhindered by shame and less-peppered with word weapons. I believe self-forgiveness begins when we decide we are ready to receive it, and that only after we begin allowing space for self-forgiveness in our lives can we believe that others would be willing to forgive us as well. Only after beginning to allow for self-forgiveness can we experience genuine faith, hope, and enthusiasm about what we can manifest into our futures.
Many of us who follow nature-based paths inspired by seasonal cycles of death, rebirth, growth, and abundance recently honored the closing of the harvest seasons and entry into a time of winter, honoring the role that death and darkness play in the regeneration and support of life. It’s a time for looking inward, for confronting those parts of ourselves, those beliefs, those stories and word wounds and word weapons, whose influences consciously or unconsciously steer the ways we navigate our lives, our relationships, and the pursuit of our passions and purpose. It’s a time for noticing seeds lying dormant in the dark, for digging up and releasing those whose fruit will bring us more grief, and for nurturing the ones we want to push up through the dark, moist soil made fertile by our grief and guilt and pain, by our shortcomings and mistakes, by our failings and tears, and by the spirit that makes us get up and try again each time we fall.
While it is tempting to believe we keep finding ourselves in the same place, making the same mistakes, an awareness of cycle helps us see how each time we encounter a similar challenge to one we’ve already experienced we bring to it greater knowledge, greater layers of meaning and understanding, deepening the lessons we bring forward into the next pieces of our journeys. We are not held hostage by our past mistakes; each moment presents a new opportunity to change course, respond with kindness, and be gentler with ourselves.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds an Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice, and is currently plotting her next round of graduate studies. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.