Our flaws do not define who we are
Periodically, I revisit my old journals to see where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and to discover patterns related to my personal and spiritual growth (or lack thereof). In a recent review, I noticed an alarming trend: how many times I wrote about the ways I failed at something. Pages were filled with what I did wrong, what I didn’t do but should have, how I should have behaved differently, and countless other ways I let myself down. Too many sentences began with “Why can’t I just…” or “Why do I always…”
And these are just the thoughts that made it onto paper. Countless other self-defeating thoughts have swirled beyond my conscious awareness. As a sensitive introvert, I am indeed in my head a lot. I process everything that happens very deeply. A stressful morning can send me deep into retreat mode - I just want to hide out and avoid all interaction with the world. I find it hard to function when I am overwhelmed, and it can take hours or sometimes days to recover from these overwhelming events or situations. I take things too personally, over-think, over-plan, ruminate, and worry. And when my behavior and choices don’t align to my own impossibly high standards for myself, I beat myself up. A lot.
When our thoughts fill up mostly or even entirely with self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation, we don’t learn. We don’t change. And we don’t grow. The more we bully ourselves for our behavior and our choices, the more we solidify unhealthy patterns that occur out of habit and become our default and stall our personal and spiritual growth.
So, what do we do? The first thing we need to do is to notice when we are swirling in self-judgment or self-criticism. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. I do find journaling incredibly helpful for this. When I put my thoughts down on paper, it becomes so much easier to see the patterns in my behavior. (If journaling is not your thing, I recommend you find another tool to support your self-observation and self-reflection practices.)
Throughout the day, as soon as I notice myself feeling overwhelmed or stuck or stressed, or if I notice that I feel like hiding out or escaping from something (or someone), I stop and reflect on what’s happening. I try to “catch myself in the act,” so I can pay attention to the voices running wild inside my head. Sometimes it’s easier to reflect on these situations the next morning.
But whenever you choose to do it, to move through and out of self-criticism, I have found it helpful to examine my self-defeating comments and explore self-reflective questions, such as:
These types of questions shift us out of self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation into self-compassion, self-kindness, self-forgiveness, self-care, and self-love. Ultimately, they increase our self-awareness and contribute to our personal and spiritual growth.
Our journal is indeed a safe place to let it all out. I can write anything I want in my journal - what I did, how I’m feeling about something, and what I don’t want to repeat in the future. So yes, let it all hang out. Explore it, examine it, learn from it. And then release it. Let it all go. Don’t get stuck in the negative stories about yourself.
We are all human. We all mess up. It’s a normal part of life. But our flaws do not define who we are. Every choice we have made - even the “negative” ones, have gotten us to this exact moment in our life. We move through life one choice at a time and along the way we are learning valuable lessons about ourselves. Every situation presents us a choice about how to respond and how to move forward. We may not always choose well, but we can always choose again.
I’ve been questioning and exploring my life purpose for years: why am I really here? Who and how am I being called to be? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? In what ways am I supposed to be serving others? These are big, important questions so I often find myself grasping for or demanding quick answers so I can get on with it. But our deepest callings and our true life purpose may take years to emerge. Each little calling we hear along the way is pulling us forward, preparing us for the next calling and then the next. I have found that understanding the topic of callings has presented a challenge for myself and some of my clients. What is a calling? How do we know when we are being called? How do we know if something is a true calling or just a whim? What if we don’t want to pursue a calling? The whole idea of finding your calling, let alone pursuing it, can feel overwhelming. In this post, I attempt to simplify it enough to get you started and share five things you need to know right now.
We will be invited to participate in a variety of calls over the course of our lives. Some will feel easier than others. Some will be downright terrifying. Sometimes we’ll say ‘yes,’ sometimes we’ll say ‘no,’ and sometimes we’ll say, ‘not yet.’ Each time we say yes, we’ll stretch more, grow more, and move that much closer to evolving to our highest potential. My hope for you is that you be open, be curious, and be willing to explore the possibilities of your calls.
In the photo above, which I took for a daily photo challenge on Instagram, there's the face on the far right, looking up. The one I placed there intentionally when I made this collage a few years ago. Then there's the face in the center, that I didn't see until the shadow highlighted it and I looked at the picture on my phone much later.
The first time I became aware that we all had an interior “shadow” was a few years ago when I read Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. I remember being curious about this concept and although I spent some time reflecting on what my own shadows might be, the significance of this concept eluded me. I’ve since read more about shadow work in various other books and each time, I’d still leave the topic feeling a bit puzzled. Reading about shadows and experiencing them firsthand are two very different things.
Our shadow is made up of parts of our personality that we’ve denied, buried, or repressed. Rohr defined it as “what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see.” This past year I’ve had many, many, (many!) opportunities to become intimate with what was lurking just beyond the light. The clues are in our behavior, such as:
No one really *wants* to know the ugly truth about herself. As unpleasant as it is, in order for us to grow spiritually, it is absolutely critical for us to contend with our shadows. Otherwise, as I discovered, these denied or hidden parts of ourselves will keep tapping us on the shoulder, begging for attention. And sometimes, what we’ve repressed will burst forth at unexpected and undesirable times.
Shadow work is not about fixing your weaknesses or abolishing what you don’t like about yourself. It’s coming into relationship with these repressed parts of yourself and transforming them into something positive. Rather than judging people, perhaps you learn to be forgiving. Instead of gripping tightly to control, perhaps you learn to relax your grip and go with the flow more. According to Rohr, “once you have faced your own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore.” You’ve seen the truth. And you can get on with evolving into your True Self, your highest potential.
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