How much time do we consume either feeling guilt or shame or some similar emotion about something we have done or not done? Imagine how much more productive, accomplished and content we could be if we were we able to shed this one common habit of dwelling on stuff we are less than proud of. Consider also how these negative emotions impact our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
In Chinese and Tibetan Medicine negative emotions are viewed as poisons that cause physical, mental and emotional disease so if we can free ourselves of these emotional pulls we should be able to live life more fully and spontaneously, being more fully present in whatever moment we are in.
That’s easy to say but it’s worth a moment to think about how we so easily fall into this habitual behavior and what steps we might take to change it.
From the time we are toddlers as we are learning to speak and walk, our parents are trying to guide and care for us by keeping us safe from things which could hurt us so we hear the words “No” and “Don’t” a lot. As we get a little older we get more nuanced instructions from parents, family, schools, churches, etc. on what’s “good” and socially acceptable behavior and what is “bad” and unacceptable. This is all helpful in teaching us how to navigate the world in an ethical and productive manner but great emphasis gets placed on separating what’s OK and what’s not OK without allowing for the grey areas between. Along the way we learn to attach feelings like guilt and shame when we hurt or disappoint ourselves and others; in most of us this becomes an automatic subconscious reaction anytime we do something outside the bounds of what we consider to be virtuous behavior.
While it is admirable to always strive to be our best self – kind, compassionate, eating only healthy food, staying fit, doing A+ work etc., the truth is we are human and sometimes we aren’t perfect. Maybe we are tired or stressed and we either say or do something that doesn’t measure up to that ideal self we would like to be. It is pretty easy to go from noticing “Oops I could have done that better” to judging and berating oneself as a failure, screw up and more – drawing negative conclusions about our capacities to be who we would like to be. It can be a vicious cycle that we repeat over and over making it harder to overcome what we see as our failings and to lead what in our own eyes would be a more exemplary life.
How do we break this cycle that has been reinforced from early childhood? It can be challenging but very worthwhile. Following are some thoughts that have helped me live a less self-judgmental life.
- We are taught “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. How profound if we add — “Treat yourself as well as you would treat your friends”. Would you judge your friends as harshly for minor infractions from perfection? Probably not, so forgive yourself and move on.
- Picture yourself looking out at an image of yourself outside your physical body. Imagine being able to see that separate self as another being. Can the consciousness of the self in your physical body feel compassion for the struggles of the image of self outside your physical body? Learn to see that other image of self as the human you are, endeavoring to do well in life. Embrace it and forgive it its faults.
- Learn to live in the present moment. We are all a product of our personal and collective past history but it is important to remember that while we can learn from the past we cannot really change it. Likewise we dream and envision what we would like to see/be in the future but there are no guarantees. What we do have is the power to change the here and now. So use each moment wisely. Don’t like what you said/did yesterday? Instead of mulling on that be different and make a different choice/decision today.
- Balance feedback from others with your own inner sense of wisdom. Be open to other people’s perspectives about you – sometimes they can see you more clearly/objectively than you can see yourself but exercise reason and stay true to yourself. If the advice you receive feels tainted or goes against what feels innately “you” at your best then let the advice go and don’t get attached to it. Respect yourself.
- If you feel in hindsight that you were wrong/mistaken about something then be honest, open and humble about apologizing and making amends/corrections. To err is human but to cover it up only perpetuates a problem and complicates life. An added benefit is that if people know you as someone who acknowledges errors and makes amends, then you can be more free to express yourself in the moment knowing you will be trusted to correct course if need be.
A lot of my thoughts here represent many years and countless teachings of wise and masterful teachers of many disciplines and spiritual persuasions. Hopefully I have managed to word some of that wisdom in plain English which will help others navigate life a little more easily and be at peace with themselves.