Self-compassion and regret

“I have learned from wiktionary that regret is just intense grief”

I’ve had more than one run in with the painful emotion of regret this week.

  • I said some unkind words of judgment that I wanted to take back shortly after they came off my tongue.
  • I unnecessarily criticized a very valid approach in a conversation with a colleague because I had another strategy.
  • I remained silent when I should have spoken up as my husband and I were considering a sales pitch…. We bought the product and both later regretted that decision.

In all three instances, I felt like a fool.

And, truth be told, I was foolish. I regretted what I had done. But that’s not really new news.

What has been new this week is how I have met my own foolishness… with self-compassion instead of shame, shame, and more shame.

I have learned from the woman at the well to tell the whole truth.

            Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

It was hard to face that I could be so judgmental and unkind.
It was hard to face my own arrogance and the insecurity evidenced by my critique.
It was hard to say to my husband that I regretted our purchase.

I have learned from the woman caught in adultery  that I am not alone in my foolishness.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

I have learned from wiktionary that regret is just intense grief.

I have learned from Mary of Bethany to let myself feel the pain of loss (even if it’s a loss I’ve created) and connect with Jesus as I do.

 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

I have learned that self-compassion opens a door for learning that shame keep tightly closed.

So, because I chose self-compassion instead of shame this week, I have also learned:

  • That I was unkind because I feel badly about some of the choices I made years ago (alas, more griefwork!)
  • That I am feeling some professional insecurity, still struggling to simply accept what I have to offer that may differ from others.
  • That I am very vulnerable right now due to my ongoing pain and the medications I take to mitigate it.

Not a bad wisdom harvest for a week that could have been characterized only by regret…

When have you felt regret?  Have you gone to shame or self-compassion? What have you learned?

Self-compassion: sorting guilt and shame

“Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion…”

In my life and work, one of the most helpful pieces of Brene Brown’s work is the way she distinguished guilt and shame.

Guilt says: I’ve done a bad thing. It is behavior focused.  It is positively correlated with healthy change. Self is not threatened so it does not need to be defensive.

Shame says: I am bad. It is personhood focused.  It is positively correlated with self-destructive behavior. Self is threatened so often goes into defensive survival mode.

 

Guilt works to preserve and maintain connection.

Shame works to disconnect us from self, God, and others.

 

And disconnection is a big deal because most of us fear isolation more than mortality.

When we mess up, we face a choice about how we will respond.

Many of us have been taught that the way of transformation and reformation is to take our sin seriously by beating up on ourselves with appropriate self-contempt and shame. We’ve been told that we “should” feel disconnected; and that anything less than that denies the holiness of God.

However, when we look at how Jesus related to women in the midst of sin, we see a very different pattern. Jesus encouraged guilt and discouraged shame. He worked to help them face their behavior and at the same time maintain personhood and connection.

Take for example his conversation with the woman at the well.  Even in the context of a cultural divide that affirmed distance, Jesus sought to connect with this woman by initiating conversation. He drew her in as he spoke about offering her what she sought: water. But, he did not stop there.  He brought to light the “shame-full” secret that was hiding beneath the surface of her life, preventing deeper connection with him.

“Go call your husband.”

When she responded with a half-truth ”I have no husband,” he persisted in revealing the facts she most feared: “”You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

He spoke of her behavior and maintained connection all the while, even affirmed her for telling the truth without mentioning that it was only half the story! He invited her to life-transforming guilt while protecting her from destructive, soul deadening, disconnecting shame.  Transformation happened when he elevated her person by speaking the truth that he was both the Messiah and the one who was seeking connection with her: “I who speak to you am he.” Self-contempt and self-criticism had no place in the story. His compassion for her invited her to be compassionate toward herself.

The same could be said of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery, just four chapters later in John’s gospel.  Jesus stoops low, perhaps to establish a point of connection with this woman whose guilt and shame were undeniable. He does not try to mitigate, defend, diminish, dismiss, or undo her guilt (I’ve done a bad thing).  But he does try to dispel the shame through connection. He also actively acts to create an experience for her that has the healing message: you are not less than even the most righteous person in your community.  You belong.  You can stay connected to God and your community in the midst of your bad behavior being seen by all. He seeks to level the personhood playing field in the midst of maintaining the healing potential of facing her poor behavioral choice.  Again, his compassion for her shows her the healing path and self-contempt is nowhere to be found.

When we refuse self-compassion and choose self-contempt, we become dangerous to ourselves.   And in that context of self-criticism, we tend toward denial and defensiveness about our own behavior for the sake of survival.  We seek to disconnect from the truth about our own lives and so from others and from God.  When we give into our tendency toward self-contempt, we re-inforce the idea that our personhood is bad and we embolden disconnecting shame… all of which make us less likely to change our behavior.

Jesus’ compassion provided the safe relational space in which these women could openly face their errant behavior as the doorway toward making new choices. They did not need denial or defensiveness. Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion, offering within ourselves that same safety so critical to facing the reality of our sinful, foolish behavior. It allows us to meet our guilt while maintaining the transforming power of connection with ourselves, God, and others.

Quite simply and perhaps counter-intuitively, self-compassion is the doorway to transformation.

 

How do you see guilt?  How do you see shame? How do you see Jesus’ compassion being connected to self-compassion?

 

 

 

How to love a fool

“When we live in close relationship with fools, so often we take on their shame as if it were our own.”

I’ve spoken with a lot of folks lately who are suffering greatly as they try to figure out what it means to love someone caught in foolishness.  Some are dealing with addictions (of all sorts). Some with long-standing and destructive generational patterns. Some are even trying to find better ways of relating to the foolish parts within themselves. It is a tricky reality because so often foolishness turns compassion on its head, manipulating well-intended actions that might be a healing force in a different context into something that enables destructive choices.  What’s a friend to do?

A few years ago, I read a good book on this subject, Fool-proofing Your Life , by Jan Silvious, but seldom hear the dilemma of loving a fool addressed in helpful ways in Christian circles. As usual, I am most drawn to the story of a woman in scripture, Abigail, who actually lived well with a fool, her husband Nabal.  Listening to her life and responses helps me find a path through the difficult landscape of loving a fool.

Though Abigail suffered with a fool, she was not a powerless victim

When we live in close relationship with fools, so often we take on their shame as if it were our own. We blend our identity with theirs and thus become a victim of their foolishness.  We allow the shared shame to disconnect us from others.  Abigail did not.  The text names her as “intelligent and beautiful” and her husband Nabal as “surly and mean.”  Her identity and reputation in the community were separate from his.

We also know Abigail did not live a life of powerlessness.  The servant approached her with this dangerous situation likely because he knew she would act. She was not a paralyzed victim. Instead she was shrewd, decisive and creative. Though suffering with a fool, she stood tall and separate, acting with wisdom.  She was a “well-differentiated” leader as described by my friend Trisha Taylor in a book she co-authored on family systems theory and leadership, The Leader’s Journey .

Abigail was both free to withhold information and free to challenge

It is intriguing to me how specifically we are told about when Abigail informed Nabal and when she did not. When she set out to save Nabal from David’s wrath, time was short and she likely did not want to deal with her husband’s objections.  Yet, Abigail was not seeking to rescue Nabal from knowledge of his own foolishness. When she got home, it was clear that she intended to tell him all about it.  However, when she found him drunk, she changed her mind.

Abigail’s decision-making was a fluid process. Sometimes she did not tell her husband what was happening and sometimes she did.  Though intent on saving the community from the devastating consequences of his foolish leadership, she was not trying to protect Nabal from recognizing his own stupidity.  Her willingness to confront him also tells me that, on some level, Abigail had not lost hope in the possibility of his repentance.  Sadly, Nabal’s foolishness was recalcitrant.

Abigail courageously and effectively confronted an angry king

What a fascinating contrast we are offered.  David, like Nabal, was behaving foolishly.  In seeking disproportionate vengeance, he was intent on self-initiated, mindless violence. David however, was a wise man and listened with gratitude as Abigail confronted him for his own good, not to mention the salvation of her family.  Like the wise woman of Abel, Abigail simply described her perspective on the situation, with confidence and without apology.  David’s heart was struck and he quickly changed his mind, humbled by and deeply grateful for her courage and wisdom.

Imagine the courage it took to go before an angry king, armed for battle and intent upon revenge. Yet, Abigail’s wise voice created an opportunity for the story to play out along a new and peaceable path.  It opened a gate of different vision and new possibility that was life-giving to all who would listen.

Do you deal well with fools? What inspires you in Abigail’s story?

God’s love: the source of self-compassion

“Self-compassion allows us to access a safe space of love and belonging in the midst of our imperfection because it is sourced in a Love beyond ourselves.”

My own journey toward self-compassion began with a simple observation from a passage of scripture I’ve known for a long time:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Cor 1:3,4

What I noticed for the first time was the fact that God’s offer of comfort puts no per-qualifiers on the source of our affliction.

If I am hurting because of my foolishness, God offers me comfort.

If I am hurting because of my sin, God offers me comfort.

If I am hurting because of my own neglect, God offers me comfort.

God’s comfort is not in response to my doing or not doing but simply to my being and my pain. The love and comfort of God are like the rain and sunshine, falling on the righteous and unrighteous, the good and the evil, the just and the unjust.  (Matthew 5:43-48)  In fact, that kind of God-sourced love is God’s definition of being perfect.

A few months ago, I had my first at-fault car accident in almost 40 years of driving.  (Thanks be to God no one was seriously injured.) Now there may have been some mitigating factors, but when you rear end someone, it’s a pretty clear call that you’ve done something big time wrong. I was distracted by who knows what and I ran into the back of the car of a really nice guy stopped at a pedestrian crosswalk. As I stood beside the road waiting for my husband and the tow truck, it occurred to me that this was a wonderful opportunity to practice receiving the comfort and compassion of God. I had no idea how hard that would be.

As I battled this voice of self-criticism and that accusation of self-contempt, I found the image of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery coming to mind repeatedly.

The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.

Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”

“No one, Master.”

“Neither do I,” said Jesus. “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.” (John 8:3–11 The Message)

This woman was a sinner: no argument there from Jesus.  Though there were likely mitigating factors,  the fact of her poor choice was inescapable.

So, why was Jesus’ first move to stoop low and write on the ground, to physically place himself below her?  Since she had been made to stand in their midst, maybe a larger target for the stones (cringe!), I cannot help but feel that Jesus lowered himself to catch her shame and terror-filled eyes.

In those days after my accident, as the shame and self-criticism tried to take hold, I sensed the same thing: Jesus kept trying to catch my eye with his. I kept seeing him kneeling on the ground beside me.  I didn’t care a whit what he was writing.  Just that he was there with kind eyes, trying to connect in the midst of the disconnecting forces of shame and offering comfort in the midst of the undeniable reality of my error. He was trying to help me remember that, along with everyone else on the planet, I am prone to make mistakes and bad decisions and still worthy of love and belonging just because God loves me.

As I have said before, I am a huge fan of Brene Brown.  My favorite moment in all of her uber-famous TED talks was in the first one when she talked about holding a baby and instead of saying, “Oh, you are so perfect,” saying instead,  “Oh you are so imperfect. And you are wired for struggle. But you are completely worthy of love and belonging.”  That was what Jesus’ eyes must have said to that woman long ago and were seeking to say to me.

As Kristin Neff points out in her book, Self-Compassion, self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem.  Promoting good self-esteem tends to deny the reality of our imperfection and so is, ultimately, not real and not sustainable. It also steals the healthy motivational power of true guilt (more about that in a future blog). Self-compassion, however, allows us to access a safe space of love and belonging in the midst of our imperfection because it is sourced in a Love beyond ourselves, God’s ever-present love for us.  And that safe place is actually great soil for real change.

Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.”

Subtle shaming

“He subtly shamed her deeply held desire for a child even as he sought to elevate the power of his love in her life. “

When I read the stories of women in Scripture, I often listen to my internal responses as a way of listening to the story.  For example, in Hannah’s story (1 Samuel 1), I would always cringe when I read Elkanah’s response to Hannah’s weeping.  So, a few years ago, I stopped and listened there for a while, trying to unpack the very complex and swirling relational dynamics as best I could or at least understand what was causing me to flinch. I  called it subtle shaming. That naming was helpful to several women at the retreat I did last weekend.  See how it strikes you.

“Subtle shaming

1:8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping?  Why don’t you eat?  Why are you downhearted?  Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”

It is hard to imagine that Elkanah did not know why she was weeping, refusing to eat, and downhearted. He saw her pain, undoubtedly felt it alongside her. He was not really seeking information about the state of her soul. So, what was he trying to say?

Imagine for a moment what it must have felt like to be on the receiving end of these words.  The logic seems sane, the reasoning sound: “Why keep torturing yourself wanting something you can never have?  Why not simply decide to be content with what you have?”  Hard reasoning to counter, especially in a moment of conversation with a man who loves you and wants your pain (and his) to stop.

Look again at Elkanah’s questions.  What else was communicated?  Hannah’s well-meaning husband was seeking to diminish or dismiss Hannah’s pain by putting it on a scale of his own creation: weighing her desire for a child against the goodness of his love for her.  He subtly shamed her deeply held desire for a child even as he sought to elevate the power of his love in her life.  He assumed his masculine perspective could resolve her feminine soul’s anguish.  He did not understand that hearts and desires have little regard for logic or for scales.

How could Hannah possibly respond?  Should she deny her pain and desire?  Or tell him his love was not enough?  In his lack of wisdom, Elkanah once again accomplished the opposite of what he intended: rather than offering true comfort to his wife, his subtle shaming let her know that her pain was no longer welcome in relationship with him.

Subtly shaming messages like these are a part of all of our lives.  Consider the overweight woman struggling to remain on a diet whose friends grow weary of her pain and struggle and say to her, “Oh, honey, why bother?  We like you chunky and no one else matters, right?”  Or the daughter who is thrilled to find a pair of fancy pink sandals just right for the prom whose mother says, “Oh, no, dear, you don’t want those. You already have those other beautiful shoes at home, remember?”  Or the woman who chooses to go back to work whose husband says, “Isn’t what I provide enough?  I’d kill to not have to go to work every day.”  All are seemingly supportive messages that subtly shame a vulnerably expressed desire.

As women, we are often uniquely susceptible to this kind of less than noble persuasion.  We too easily doubt the goodness of our feminine desires, especially in the face of seeming support and convincing logic, simply because they are connected so deeply with our hearts and emotions.  The simple fact that these kinds of painful dynamics women face are written within these ancient stories can be very healing.  God knows our pain and cares about the ways we hurt and struggle.”                    Excerpt from The Feminine Soul