Becoming the Living Poet

Self-Forgiveness Revisited

Posted on: August 9, 2009

So I’m here online and I shouldn’t be. I’m here because I forgot my passport, couldn’t get on my plane, and had to pay a fee to transfer my ticket back to Sacramento to a week later than I wanted to leave Denmark.

For the last few days I’ve been alternately crying and disassociating because I’ve been having trouble dealing with how stupid and incompetent I feel. I’ve done some brainstorming on how I can be more organized and less distracted by anxiety in the future, but a part of me just doesn’t see the steps I’ve taken to do better next time as good enough. A part of me wants to hurt the lesson into me until I learn it good and proper this time.

This is a form of self abuse and I need to stop tolerating it.

A while back I wrote a post about self-forgiveness. It’s one of my favorite posts on the blog because every time I re-read it, it never fails to help me feel calmer and more accepting of my personal growth process.

In the post I quoted this passage on the Mayo Clinic’s article on forgiveness:

Also, remember that forgiveness often isn’t a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

It’s been a rough few days and it’s bound to be an even rougher week if I can’t ever so gently and ever so lovingly snap myself out of this doom spiral.

Yesterday morning as I was tumbling through the darkness, through the haze of emotional pain and indifference, I heard a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering urgently, Pull up! Pull up! The voice was my survival instinct and it was telling me if I didn’t point my psyche in a direction other than down I was going to crash hard, I was going to hurt myself. While I am very grateful to that tiny voice that protects me time and again from full on comatosed, can’t leave the bed depression and physical self injury, that’s a lot of burden for one tiny voice to shoulder. I need to stop pushing myself towards some sort of psychological abyss and expecting my sense of self preservation to pull me back from the brink in the nick of time.

In short, I need to make good on this promise to become my own best friend. I need to stop casting the first stone whenever I make a mistake.

My partner and I have been having a lot of communication problems lately, mostly because I’ve been so clogged up with shame over the mistake I made and also because a part of me has been expecting my partner to help make it right for me. My partner hasn’t been able to do or say much to stop the pain because it’s no longer my partner’s forgiveness I am seeking, that was given long ago. The person who refuses to be compassionate is myself towards myself.

I decided to catch up on a few Freak Revolution posts in the hopes of finding something that would either help alleviate some of the angst or at least help remind me not to expect the person I love to fix it for me. (Freak Revolution is a blog about communication and self acceptance. Not sure why I haven’t added it to my blog roll yet. I read it all the time. I’m remedying that now.) I came across a post that did both. It’s called The Little Girl and the Hammer.

The post is about a difficult time in the author’s childhood right after her parents had divorced when she felt that the only time she could get positive attention was when she was injured so after healing from a broken wrist she tried to break her own ankle with a hammer so that the positive attention wouldn’t stop. When she realized she couldn’t intentionally injure herself, she became very clutzy and suffered a lot more injuries that she did and did not intentionally cause depending upon your definition of intention.

Now I don’t think that’s why I forgot my passport. I don’t think I unconsciously wanted to push back an already difficult move on a tight deadline by a whole week and cost myself $500 in flight and train fees (the airport is in Copenhagen, not Aarhus, so one of the things I had to pay for was the two way ticket back to Aarhus to take the 3 hour train ride of shame back to my departure point). I do think the fact that I got literally feverish with depression and cried on and off for days after making the mistake has a lot to do with how and when my needs got met when I was growing up.

Like the writer in The Little Girl and the Hammer, I too had a somewhat difficult relationship with my mother. I wasn’t neglected, but my mother was a very emotional person (not unlike I am now, really). She was a single mother, not at all ready to have a child, who did as good a job as she could have under the circumstances as she struggled to feed and cloth me and keep a roof over my head. She was a survivor, a refugee from an alcoholic family and a short, but disastrous marriage.

From an early age I had the impression that the odds were stacked against us. My mom was holding back the big scary world as best she could, and it was my responsibility to help in the only way I could, to be as strong as she was. Unfortunately I was a very sensitive child, so that often didn’t work out too well. My mom wasn’t always terribly sympathetic of my eccentricities, but she did care about me deeply, she just didn’t always have the patience necessary to deal with my moods. Thinking back I can recognize a great deal of my mother in how I often see the world, a long series of catastrophes that need attending too with brief respites of peace which are to be aggressively defended from any intrusion of negativity.

My mother was dealing with her own issues and I don’t blame her for this in any way, but it seems to me that I was taught the lesson that minor sadness, anger, and pain should be dealt with as quietly as possible and that the only hurt that warranted another person’s attention was disaster level hurt. Thus, I learned to hold in my pain for as long as I could and then if I couldn’t keep it invisible, fall apart as completely and dramatically as possible to ensure I got sympathy for the pain I was supposed to be hiding.

Acknowledging that those were the coping mechanisms I learned as a child, it’s time for my adult self to further acknowledge that there are other ways of coping with emotional pain.

I’ve spent many years of my life hoping the pain would just go away. I’d go to college (nope, still dealing with anxiety and depression), graduate from college and get a job I enjoyed (still there), get into a healthy relationship with a person who loved and respected me (still anxious and depressed, though admittedly less than when I was in emotionally abusive relationships).

It isn’t my external circumstances that cause the anxiety and depression. Admittedly, lapses in self respect that cause me to put myself in bad circumstances and do self destructive things (like not doing the self care I needed in order to calm my anxiety long enough to focus on packing properly and thus nearly trapping myself in a foreign country) add fuel to the emotional instability fire, but these are just symptoms.

The real problem is that I get so wrapped up in the ‘shoulds’ and the endless layers of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing that surround not doing a task perfectly that I forget to ask myself a more fundamental question: What do I need to ensure that this task gets done and that my emotional needs are met while I’m completing it?

So OMG I need to pack, but I don’t know where to start, ahh, ahh, ahh, what if I forget something?!?!?! doesn’t address the underlying question: I’m feeling anxious right now and trying to avoid the source of anxiety, what do I need to feel less afraid and overwhelmed? What do I need right now to ensure that I don’t forget anything and can get home safely?

The answer was probably to sit down, make a cup of tea, and write a list of everything that needed to be in my suitcase, and then possibly to have my partner read over the list to see if I’d forgotten anything. And most importantly, to forgive myself for the things I couldn’t finish before I left, and focus on the things that had to be finished in order to leave.

I recently read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and came upon this great quote:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are pecularily in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notions of us.

I am ready to recommit myself to the path of self love and self-forgiveness. I am ready to stop crying, brush off the mistakes of the past however egregious, and move forward in the quest to find housing in San Francisco and begin my studies as an MFA poet. I am prepared and committed to offer myself encouragement when I stumble, rather than condemnation.

When I was writing this post I also ran into this quote, which was a heartening reminder of what’s really important:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt


7 Responses to "Self-Forgiveness Revisited"

Wow, such amazing self work. Your writing is so completely honest, open and intensely moving. I want to drink it in and I can’t wait for the next installment.

Wishing you safety and calm as you make your way to San Francisco. What an awesome adventure! Lots of love ~ Eileen

*hugs* Thank you for writing this.

Greaaaaat post. Loved the honesty, loved the quotes. I consider all the dumb stuff I do to be interesting twists in my success story lol. But you’re right, self-improvement is work, it doesn’t just happen. This is worth reading a few more times.

terrific post and you are so right that a million people could forgive us and we’d still have a hard time forgiving ourselves!

i lost my wallet in newark while boarding a flight to france, i was lucky that i had my passport with me in a different wallet and see there was one of the keys – having too many places to put things. anytime i get out of sorts and anxious it is always because i have too many boxes, too many places to shove things. that’s when i have to sit down and regroup and thin back.

that’s what you did here 🙂 congrats on getting that far!

Thanks for the support, everyone! I really appreciate it, even though I’m terrible at keeping up with my blog comments.

Kyeli, I really should be thanking you. Your post over at Freak Revolution was incredibly inspiring and I’m really glad you shared your story.

I’ve arrived horribly late, but still wanted to say “Oh my…”, sit down here a while and nod, even though you can’t see me.

I so understand this anxiety and self-battering spiral you describe. And I have to say that I am so immensely impressed with how you are meeting it head on here – looking at it, being with it and addressing these issues. That’s so hard to do – these deep-rooted things are insidious and creep into behavioural patterns the next moment we aren’t looking.

I hope things are better now. xx

Hoping your journey is going smoothly. Your post here is so honest and intelligent and so hopeful. Self-forgiveness and self-respect are lessons I think most of us have to learn over and over and over again; being as aware of their necessity as you are is the most important part though. Good luck with everything as you get ready to start your MFA!

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