Self-compassion is a favorite focus of mine–with the goal that we all want to beat ourselves up a little less each day. In our human habit of black and white thinking, there’s the tendency to think that means letting ourselves off the hook for any mistakes. That would be dysfunctional, unhealthy, like we’re getting away with proverbial murder.
It is healthy to evaluate our failures in order to correct our course and grow. But need to punish or judge ourselves, for character building, exists once. But only once. Would you have a criminal punished again and again? Isn’t that what we do when we relentlessly chastise ourselves for our human failings?
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz addresses this human tendency to make ourselves pay for a mistake thousands of times. Other creatures make a mistake, learn from it, and move on. True justice, says Ruiz, is paying only once for an error. True injustice is repeatedly punishing ourselves, through guilt, shame, and self-derogatory talk.
When I was a teenager, learning to drive, we had a three foot diameter maple tree on the absolute edge of our home’s driveway. This tree abutted the black top–no grass for buffering error. Backing the car out of the driveway meant the tree loomed and teased, begging me to scrape up against it, every time. Most of the time I drove my dad’s VW Beetle, so it was easy to miss the tree. After I’d been driving some months, my dad let me drive the big fancy sedan, necessary to haul our little Sunfish sailboat, to the local lake. He was so worried about me taking the big family car and driving an hour away, boat on top. I promised I’d be so careful, and I worried all day, even making my friends walk farther across the hot parking lot in bare feet, boat in the air, so I could park FAR away from other cars. All went well. No scrapes for the car, all the way to the lake and back. We unloaded the boat, and I had to back the big car out of the drive once more to let my sister out of the drive with the VW. The sickening sound of the driver’s side front fender on that tree, on this final backing, is forever burned in my brain. As is the shame. My dad wasn’t even that mad–but I felt terrible. Even though my big sister had driven this same big sedan into a HUGE ditch the year before, miles from civilization in a Canadian campground, and she’d survived.
Not only do we punish ourselves on multiple occasions for the same flaw, we often punish those we love as well: every time we remember their mistake. We label, categorize, and judge–based on one incident. Whether we are judging ourselves or others, once is enough. Talk it out with yourself or your loved one, and let it go. If it recurs, revisit the issue. Otherwise, offer some compassion, remember the ratio of good to bad, and move on.
I think I’m ready to let go of that visceral memory. Here it goes: floating away like an errant helium balloon. Have any of your own balloons to release? Join me–I feel better already.