Knowing What’s Already There

I’m not writing tonight because of a special lesson I’ve learned or because something significant has happened. I’m putting down these words, because it’s been a difficult day with a lot of shame and pain and sadness, and I feel the need to be accountable for what I’ve being struggling through today.

I’m waiting to hear if I’ll be able to move into an apartment. And waiting and waiting. It seems to me as if this apartment is the key to physically leaving my marriage, but it isn’t. It’s one more step, just one piece of everything that is about to change in my life.

I have gone through a lot of motions to get to this point of waiting: applications and verifications and signatures and phone call after phone call. But today I felt the reality of “leaving” sink a little deeper than it had before. It hurts. I’m sad. So are my kids.

I told them today we have to give up one of our dogs when we move. My soon-to-be-ex-husband has declared without hesitation that he doesn’t want our two dogs. They are sweet things. We’ve had both since they were puppies; they’re now eleven and nine. The elder weighs about 20 pounds and the other over 70. I’ve learned that apartment managers don’t like big dogs, so even though I’ve searched and asked and hoped, I haven’t found a place that will allow our big dog.

And so I’m rehoming him. It’s a process that involves interviews and evaluations and prayers that he’ll be accepted and find a place where he’ll be happy and safe for the rest of his life. It also involves shame that I wasn’t able to take care of this family member I promised to take care of and because I have had to hurt my children.

Nothing brings home the sharpness of the difficulties ahead more than watching your child cry for hurtful, unfair things they have no control over but you do. I’ve been thinking about separating from my husband for years … more seriously about it for months, but now that it’s maybe just a couple of weeks away, it has the power to overwhelm me. Today I was reminded that this is neither a fantasy nor a plan anymore. It’s real.

That’s when the shame and doubt settled in, hard: Can I really do this? Am I capable? Will I still be worthy? Am I serious? For a little while tonight, I sure felt as if the answer to each one of these questions must be “no.” It scared me and I wanted to reach out, tell someone I trust, ask for reassurance. But I didn’t. You see, I realized I have to stop doing that.

My friends are going to be there for me and be supportive no matter what—they’re amazing like that—but not a single one of them can take my hand and lead me out of my house on moving day. They can’t talk to my kids for me or give me the coping skills to handle the bad days. I need to do the most difficult things on my own. Which means, if I am serious about ending my marriage—and I am—I need to start thinking like I am, believing it. The strength needs to come from me.

That’s the truth about everything ahead, really, all the changes, all the hard things, all the sad things. I need to know I can get through all of these things; not think I can, know. It’s going to be painful and heartbreaking at times, and I’m going to feel happy, sad, angry, excited, ashamed, proud, embarrassed, afraid, and I need to accept this and then go forward.

It’s what I did this morning in telling my kids about our dog and then working with them to find good things to focus on in the future. It’s what I did tonight when I wouldn’t let myself reach out to a friend to be lifted out of my fears and shame, but instead turned inward to work through it alone. It’s what I’m doing now, putting down these words and determining that I will do what it takes get through the things ahead and declaring that I have the strength to do it.

Maybe I do have a point tonight: I know what I’m capable of and I know I need to use that at the times when things are difficult to face. What I need to survive is inside me. I just need to trust and believe this is true. No one can give it to me and—maybe more importantly—no one can take it away but me. I need to know I can do this, and I tonight, finally, I do.

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Be Good to Yourself

Self-compassion is not something I offer myself naturally. I have to stop and deliberately think about it. Every. Single. Time. And even that’s difficult. I don’t always remember to stop and think before I criticize or am unkind to myself. And sometimes I just can’t accomplish it, even when I do think about it.

It’s difficult to justify not knowing how to show myself compassion halfway through my 30s. How have I never learned how to do this? I think I might have known at one time or another, but I’ve forgotten. Shame is good at making us forget the good things. But I’m ready to remember them.

I’ve been working on practicing self-compassion. Several months ago, I wrote myself a letter, offering me the kind of compassion I’d offer a good friend. It began:

My dear friend. I’m sorry to hear about the hard things you’re dealing with right now. I know you must be struggling with the things you’re going through. Hang in there and be strong. You’re so brave to take these steps and to stare down and deal with the shame and history and abuse that is hurting you so bad. I can’t imagine having the strength to carry that for 15 years and in the end to have to relearn how to feel and to cope with such harsh feelings.

It’s time to recognize that I’ve not only endured some painful points in my life, but also have the strength and courage it takes to face them and change my life.

A few weeks ago, and now continuing this week as well, I took this concept a step farther. I began keeping a self-compassion journal. I have been sitting down each night and writing down all the things I’ve felt ashamed for or that made me feel bad during the day, whether it was something I felt I’d done wrong or something someone else had done to shame me. I’ve then been writing self-compassionate responses to each of these items, things such as “It’s okay. You worked hard. I’m proud of you.” It has been difficult and at times tedious work, but I am learning some important lessons from it, things I can use to grow.

First and foremost, I’ve always known I’m critical of myself, but it seems to go further than I thought. I’m hard on myself.  My lists of shaming items tend to be long and detailed. At the end of each day, I remember everything I’ve felt bad for and about. The smallest items are worth criticizing—I felt guilty for having to find a new home for my dog; I felt at fault for my son’s lower grades at the end of the school year, because I’m the one who told him his dad and I were separating and that we’d have to move; I felt ashamed for standing up for myself against another family member in front of my family; I blamed myself for my husband getting angry; etc.

I allow myself no leeway, no room to make a single mistake without notation, and I take responsibility for things that aren’t necessarily mine to be responsible for. More uncompassionately, I also withhold forgiveness from myself. After an entire day has passed, I can still feel the shame and guilt I felt as long ago as the morning. There is no forgetting, no letting go.

I struggle through the self-compassionate notes sometimes, but I write them, forcing the kindness and forgiveness if I have to. It’s helping. I’m learning. Sometimes the shaming lists are shorter and sometimes I fall asleep loving myself a little more than I did when I started. It’s a beginning, a platform to start from.

From this experience and my observations, I’ve gone another step. Forgiveness is definitely one of the things I find most difficult to offer myself. And I’m taking time to study what forgiveness is, to create in myself a concept that I can wrap my mind around and make my own. I don’t want to just allow myself to make mistakes now and again—I want to forgive myself more completely when I do make them, because I will make them.

The most striking thing I’ve found is that experts see forgiveness as a “deliberate” and “conscious” decision. In order to forgive myself, I need to decide to do so. I can also choose not to, which has traditionally been the path I’ve followed. But writing self-compassionate notes has been a way for me to practice making the decision to forgive, and I’ve already noticed that I don’t always need to wait until the end of the day to do so. Sometimes, I grant forgiveness on the spot. Growth.

For me, even once I’ve chosen to forgive, there is still more that needs to happen, and again, the self-compassion notes have given me a way to practice this. It is important to let go of whatever it is that’s given me shame or guilt. This is perhaps the most difficult part for me. I am a perfectionist. My memory is long and focused on the minutiae of every one of my offenses. I hold on to them, save them to use against myself later, let them burn inside me and feed my shame. But one can even learn to stop doing this. Think of it this way:

Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing the monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward. – Author unknown

The idea of a deliberate decision is there again. Forgiveness and letting go of the things I’ve done and that I’ve experienced is my choice. I control it. I have the power to give myself kindness and compassion. No one can offer it to me like I can.

Be kind to yourself. Be self-compassionate. Forgive and let go of hurt and blame. You’re the only one who can do that for yourself.