From Sorting the Pieces of Your Life: A Woman’s Guide to Simplicity, Order, Renewal, and Trust
“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, author
The client sitting in front of me is berating himself. He is angry. His two youngest children are in their late teens and he is full of self-loathing and regret for the mistakes he made as a father. The missed road trips he had promised; times he was so drunk or high that he was absent during important moments in their lives; and that he didn’t teach them how to play the guitar. He is mired in the muck of shame and self-loathing over his past.
What I see is a very brave man—someone who fought and clawed his way to sobriety from alcohol and cocaine. Here is someone who became a good father and helped hundreds of other men find their way to sobriety through his tireless work as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. This is also a man who is taking his kids on a road trip this summer and is now teaching them guitar.
“I’m curious about the underpinnings of this shame.” I say. “Let’s talk about some of the losses in your own life.”
Tears fill his eyes. “I remember how many times I waited for hours for my father to come home for promised activities, but he wouldn’t show up because he was out on another bender,” he tells me.
We identified that his work is to grieve his own losses. As he does he can explore how he wants to father now. Part of that journey is releasing the shame he felt for his past hurtful behavior, but also acknowledging his strengths.
“Can you forgive yourself?” I ask him.
“How in the world would I ever do that?” he asks.
In the last chapter we talked about cleaning the clutter out of our closets. Today we explore clearing our emotional clutter—the regrets, the mistakes, the injuries. Sorting both the contents of our closets and our hearts, require a good light! In her best-selling book, Daring Greatly, How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brene Brown, reminds us that “Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Why do we avoid the ‘spring cleaning’ of the soul? Usually fear, pain, guilt, and shame. Guilt tells us we have done something wrong. Shame tells us we are wrong. Shame recedes when we are willing to see our wrongs and “humbly admit them” as they teach in Twelve Step Recovery Programs.
I still remember my first recovery meeting many years ago. I was afraid and embarrassed. But like every person in that room, I named my addictive behavior out loud. It took me a long time to understand that I was an addict and to admit it. I had just thought I was weak and bad. Like many of us in recovery, my shame was a heavy coat whose burden I had born for years. By finally flinging open the door on the darkness of my hidden truth, I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom and hope.
When we own our humanity we acknowledge that we are capable of thoughts and actions that can feel shameful, and that we are not alone. Facing our shadow can help remind us that we are “engaged in a perpetual process of becoming,” as Emerson wrote. That ‘becoming’ involves mistakes, relapses, and terrible judgment at times. Every mistake is an opportunity for humility and staying aware of our humanity. We can replace our judgment with curiosity, both for our selves and others.
Letting go of the past shadows requires us to see what was, say what was, grieve what was, and move on. Just like we use containers such as boxes and bags to remove our physical cutter, there are containers for our spiritual housecleaning as well. They can include journaling, meditation, prayer, speaking with a trusted friend, advisor, or counselor, or attending a recovery meeting,
Mark Matousek, a journalist and writing teacher recommends writing as a way to “reframe our stories. Stories can imprison us,” he says. In his writing workshop, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, he teaches that we can write ourselves to freedom, not by just lamenting the past, but by writing about what we learned from our experiences. This requires telling the “full unvarnished truth” he says. “Do not lie to the page,” he instructs.
He also encourages surrendering to the story, allowing it to reveal itself with fresh insight and understanding. This requires dismissing our ‘inner-editor’ and just letting our story spill out. There are insights to be gained from the writing process. And it can become a pathway not only to self-discovery, but recovery.
I have been journaling since I was 14. When I am completely present to the experience, emotion arises with the written word. It becomes a time not just to recount and explore, but to cry, mourn, laugh, sigh, and release.
With the client mentioned above, we found the root of his work as we went deeper into his ‘emotional closet’ with the light of curiosity and compassion. We used paper and writing to track the common theme in his family of origin. We discovered that addiction and abandonment had been a family theme for four generations at least. We also noted that with each generation recovery efforts moved forward with increasing success.
Instead of judging the sins of his father, and himself, he used curiosity to understand the context in the family that contributed to creating addiction and abandonment. As he already knew from his years of recovery work, telling the truth and taking action empowered each generation to leave the past a little bit further behind. He had forgiven his father and made amends to his children. But how does one make amends to oneself?
In the next chapter we will explore how to forgive self and other. It is a crucial step in cleaning the house of soul.