Why are we all so hard on ourselves?

Like the idea planted by dream thieves in Inception, we all silently carry seeds of doubt inside — sewn into us by our own misdeeds, fears, and failings. And that doubt? Wow is that doubt powerful stuff. Born of the notion that we are unworthy of forgiving ourselves the trespasses we commit against others, and ourselves.

I don’t know if I am more loaded down with doubt than the average person, but I can tell you that I am a person who is haunted by the many mistakes I make. No one is more hard on me than me. And I am a champ at withholding forgiveness from myself, letting years of mis-steps and bad judgement weigh me down.

Need an example? Oh, I’ve got loads…

When I was in junior high I had a crush on a boy who lived a few houses down from me. We rode the same bus to school — an hour each way, every day. He was going out with my friend, a girl who was the picture of sweetness and the kind of popular that had every kid in school wrapped around her finger, which would be annoying if we all just didn’t love her so gosh darn much! Like a kitten. No, like 10 kittens in an adorable basket, framed with one of those LOL Cats phrases that make you chuckle all day long in spite of yourself. The fact that she talked to me on the phone for hours and laughed at my jokes in the hall was a testament to the fact that she was way too nice to associate with the Mean Girls who always seem to populate the superior cliques. But, as we all remember, junior high was a cruel place. And anyone is capable of being cruel.

So, I was just nuts for this boy, who’s name I can’t even remember now. I’m sure he was just dreamy, although the only thing I remember about him now is a mop of brown hair. My friend told me that she didn’t like him anymore and, I admit, I saw an opportunity. There was no way he was going to notice me while he was going out with my friend. But surely he’d notice the shy band geek on the bus — if only he didn’t have a cute girlfriend already! Because, clearly, that was the only thing standing in our way. So, I told my friend how much I pined for her guy. And, in a move that surprised me completely, she told me she’d break up with him that day because she didn’t even like him anymore anyway. (She had a crush on some other boy.)

Was it really that simple? I panicked. I was awash in paranoia. Maybe she was just playing me. Maybe this was all an elaborate practical joke. Why was she so nice to me, anyway? And that’s when I remembered that she had multiple phone lines. So I convinced her to break up with her boyfriend on the phone, while I (silently) listened. Ugh. I’m ashamed just to write that, more than 20 years later. But I was a delusional, hormonal adolescent with a crush and it was making me blind to all reason and all sense of compassion. My friend tried to talk me out of it. I could tell she felt bad about it. But I had never had a boyfriend or broken up with anyone. I didn’t know how shitty it was. All I knew was that this girl was standing between me and the boy I liked. And I manipulated and bullied her into doing what I wanted, no matter the cost.

So, there I was, listening in on this phone conversation! I remember thinking that it was crazy to hear his voice on the phone when I could look out the window and see his house across the street. And he was just sitting there talking to his girlfriend, without any clue about what was going to happen. He was happy she called. And that’s when the first twinge hit me. This isn’t right. But I kept on the line. And my friend deftly dumped this boy. Having had some experience in this department, she was actually very nice about it. But that’s just the thing; it was my first time hearing someone’s heart get broken. And I could hear it. Even though he was very even-tempered and collected about the whole thing, it felt like I could pinpoint the exact moment he was crushed by love. Because even though she didn’t really like him anymore, it was clear that he liked her a whole lot.

And then I was back on the phone (alone) with my friend, who was a bit deflated but calm. I played it cool as she said, “He’s all yours now.” But inside I felt sick. How could I have done that to someone? How could I have been so calculating about the affairs of someone else’s heart? (To be fair, it doesn’t speak well of my friend that she went along with this plan.) I couldn’t even look at the boy for a couple of weeks. I still thought he was as dreamy as ever but when I saw his sad eyes and my friend told me all the sweet things he was doing to try and win her back… I just felt like a monster. I knew then that not only did I not have a chance with him, but I would never take it even if I did. I would never be able to get over how guilty I was. How duplicitous I’d been. And how cold I was willing to be to get what I wanted.

It’s a horrible little story, really. And I keep questioning myself about sharing it with you now. Even now, as a grown woman who has never done anything like that ever again, I still feel ashamed that I did that. Even if I was 13. It was a shitty thing to do. And because, be honest, it makes you like me a little less now, doesn’t it?

But the reason why I share this story is not to horrify you by my acts of inhumanity during puberty; it’s to illustrate a point. Why should something like this still make me feel so guilty all these years later? Surely, those two people are grown up now with lives and life partners (maybe even divorces by now) and (maybe) children, college degrees, careers, and other such stuff of life. My indiscretion was in my total lack of compassion, but in all honesty, it had nothing to do with the outcome of that relationship. My friend was going to break up with that boy regardless of my feelings or motives. But where I implicate myself is in influencing the how. And wanting to be a voyeur in the process.

All that is truly so much water under the bridge. It’s long gone. It ended my friendship, because it was never the same after that. And it taught me a painful lesson about unchecked desire — the desire to get what you want at any cost.

So why does it still pop into my mind at those times when I feel low and question my worth as a person? Actually, it’s just one pebble in a bucket of pebbles. And no matter how many good deeds I do in life, how many people I help with my work, or how good a wife/mother/daughter/sister/friend/etc. I am to the people in my life now, if I ever want to remind myself how shitty I can be, all I have to do is reach for a fistful of pebbles from my bucket of failings.

Let’s take a look at what I can find in there today:

  • Sometimes its big stuff: When I was a reporter I always used to hate the times when I had to, quite literally, chase someone while shouting questions at them. I also hated press conferences where everyone had to shout questions. It made me feel like an ambulance chaser, even if the reason why I was there was truly about justice. It may have been part of the job. It may have been ethical, according to the mores of journalism. But it sure didn’t feel right. … And while we’re on the subject, there are some interviews and some questions and some stories I wish I could take back. Not because they were inaccurate. But because sometimes being right doesn’t wash away how bad it feels to be the one delivering bad news. Some news was so rotten, you knew you were giving people a bad day as soon as they read it. And that always made me feel guilty.
  • Sometimes it’s insignificant stuff: I once accidentally threw away some important office files at an old job. They weren’t so important that anyone got fired (or even in trouble), but they were important enough to hurt future the progress on some projects. Even though my boss at the time never mentioned it, I have never forgiven myself for that lapse in judgement.
  • And silly things: One Christmas holiday at my in-laws, I accidentally wiped out the winning game history on a computer game my father-in-law was playing. He was so mad he went and asked everyone directly if they had done it. When he came and asked me, I lied and said no. I still feel guilty about it almost 10 years later.
  • And society things: I didn’t make all my kid’s baby food from scratch. It’s not all organic. I hated breastfeeding. And for this and so much more, I am a failure as a mother. This one is like a guilt-boomerang. Every time I think I get rid of it, I can count on some checkstand clerk to belittle the items in my shopping cart or for there to be a much-hyped article buzzing around the social media sites.
  • The things that aren’t worth reliving: I cannot tell you how much I beat myself up for the weight gain and bad health habits I had in my 20s. Since I have a chronic illness, it’s important to live a healthy lifestyle (eat right, exercise, you know the drill). But I was young and stupid and rebellious and angry that I was sick. So I comforted myself with food. And, in all honesty, I got pretty fat. (And let me just say that I am using that term, “fat,” in the sense that I was by definition obese. And the excess weight was absolutely causing significant health problems. I embrace people of all shapes and sizes. But if the weight you are is impacting your health, it has to change. Period.) And that weight took a serious toll on my body that I pay for today. I beat myself up about that all the time. And I feel a sense of guilt that I didn’t know how good I had it at times, now that my health is worse today. Oh the things we take for granted! And the price we pay for stubborn arrogance!
  • And the things that are accidental: I got a terrible case of food poisoning when I was pregnant. It was so bad that I had to go to the hospital twice for IV fluids and medication to stop early labor. I couldn’t hold down solids for two weeks. Even though I obviously survived and my daughter is amazingly healthy, smart, and happy, I still beat myself up about it. Every day. Because every day I think it was my own fault I ate tainted food and put us both in jeopardy. And it’s kicked off a bad case of germaphobia concerning food that I am battle every day.

I could go on. But I think you get the point. And I bet you have a whole bucket of stuff, too. We all do. Some of it is painful to admit, like my story from junior high. (Please don’t hate me.) And some of it lives like a cancer in our lives every day, an invisible weight on us that holds us back from being happy and living to our full potential. I can’t tell you how much time I waste every day cleaning my kitchen counters and washing my hands in the kitchen. (It’s pretty much just a kitchen thing for me.) I ate food that was tainted and it endangered not just me, but the health of my pregnancy. Those are very high stakes! I’m working on tools to put it behind me, but it’s definitely an up-hill climb.

And let’s face it, like many survivors of sexual violence, I have had to face deeply painful feelings of shame and guilt for what happened to me. Of course, that burden was the heaviest to bear and the hardest to take off. But with the help of counselors, I worked through that many years ago.

But somehow, even though I learned how to walk out of the pain of sexual violence, I have not been able to cast off the burdens of much smaller experiences, mistakes, failings, or accidents. Do I really deserve to beat myself up forever because I accidentally threw away some office files? Is that really a grievance I need to take with me to the grave?

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness. In the past, I have spent time working on healing from sexual violence. I have spent time healing damaged relationships. I have even worked on a sense that I was unworthy of love. But now I am wondering if maybe all of that has led me to a place where I look at one of the most loving things you can do — and sometimes the hardest — forgiving ourselves.

I think I have gone through life thinking about the forgiveness that others might ask of me. And there are plenty of things that have warranted that request. And I have offered many an apology in my life, for the wrongs I have done. But what about ourselves?

What about all the things that we carry in that bucket that we refuse to forgive ourselves for?

Maybe this is all old news to you, but this is a radical idea for me. It’s something I had never considered. I have to forgive myself. I have to forgive myself for eating tainted food when I was pregnant. I have to forgive myself that I acted like a complete jerk to someone in junior high. Otherwise, those seeds of doubt move in. And we keep trudging around with these buckets full of failures. And I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.

It feels to me like forgiveness is looking an awful lot like an act of love. And we could all do with a little more love.


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