Do you ever find yourself thinking back to a not-so-proud moment in your life? Maybe you got in an argument with a loved one and said something terrible? Maybe you drank too much and did or said something you regret? Maybe it’s something that happened during childhood, and you’re not even sure why you feel shame about it? It’s not on your mind all the time, maybe even just a couple times a year. But every time it is…you get that feeling. That heavy, sinking feeling of shame, regret, and embarrassment.
I, too, catch myself doing this. (Perfectionists are particularly prone to this affliction, though it does happen to everyone.) I caught myself engaging in this type of self-misery the other day, and very quickly went into a shame spiral. Then, I paused and thought to myself, “What would I tell a client to do right now?” (I wish I did this more often!!!)
The first word that came to mind was compassion. I would tell a client to offer him/herself some compassion. Now, you might be thinking, “Well if I did that, then I would just turn into a psychopath. I would do regrettable things, then look back on it and think, ‘Its fine! I’m a beautiful person!”
K, a little dramatic, but I hear your point.
Well, here’s my point: you’re not a psychopath. The fact that you feel shame, regret or disappointment in the first place is a fantastic indicator of your non-psychopathness.
Shame is used as a why to control behaviors. We see it everywhere, from religion, to teaching in schools, to parenting, to leadership. Shame is used as a motivator for change, sometimes it works! But as we’ve learned from research like Brene Brown’s and countless others, shame is not a good motivator for behavior change. In fact, it usually just makes us feel shitty, without changing our behaviors.
Perhaps shame/guilt is helpful at first. The next day, maybe you should feel bad about a mistake you made. But feeling shame about something you did five years ago? Two years ago? 6 months ago? This kind of retroactive shame does nothing but crush your soul. Your soul does not need to be crushed girlfriend. Not today. Not neva’.
What to do instead
Instead, what if we offer ourselves forgiveness? What if we offer ourselves compassion? What if we say the things we would say to a friend who made a mistake?
“Its okay, you made a mistake. Everyone does!”
“Your past doesn’t define you!”
“One incident doesn’t make you a bad person!”
Why can’t we offer this kind of compassion to ourselves?
What’s done is done; it’s in the past. The only thing we have control of now is how we view the past, specifically our past selves. With this exercise, we are going to try and reduce the shame, regret, and other negative thoughts that come up when we think about what we did/said/didn’t do…you get the point.
The most important part of this exercise is to visualize it. If the THOUGHT of THINKING (don’t worry, that makes sense) about a particular painful/shameful memory makes you cringe, that’s exactly where you need to send compassion.
When you’re imagining the incident, first try and disassociate the negative feelings that are attached to it. This will take practice. Try to observe it like a non-judgmental outsider; like you’re just watching a movie clip.
Then, send it compassion, love and understanding instead. I mean that quite literally: send compassion over to it. Imagine waving a wand and sending compassion. Imagine raining down love on it. Say things to yourself like, “You weren’t in a good place when this happened” or “This is not indicative of the person you are today.” Visualize yourself consoling the past you, the person who made this mistake. Think about forgiving him/her. Think about giving her a hug instead of a lashing and a side-eye. Take some deep breaths. Breathe in the negative, and breathe out compassion.
ANYTIME the thought or memory comes into your head, do this.
Pro tip: I wouldn’t sit down and purposely think about something that’s uncomfortable to practice this exercise. Rather, when it comes up naturally (it will, no need to rush things!) practice it.
Guys, it really works.
When we engage in self-sabotage in our heads, we are essentially reliving the event over and over again. Not the events themselves, but the emotions associated with those events. If we change the feelings attached to them, they will no longer have such a strong negative quality, and perhaps won’t even come to our mind as often.
I’ve been doing this for a little over two weeks now, and let me tell you, I can ALREADY notice a difference.
We can’t change what we’ve done. We cant change bad decisions. But we CAN change the emotions, thoughts and beliefs about ourselves surrounding the decision. This is what will live on forever through us, not the decision itself.
Let me know how it goes for you!