How I work with shame
Go to the edge of the forest.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
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Happy Sunday, Soothers. I wanted to share a story today from Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin and the book The Radical Acceptance of Everything. This brief story taught me to relate differently to my shame and the parts of myself that I hated, that I was trying to shove away from me. (It also makes me cry pretty much every time.)
Once upon a time there was a boy who had a dog. The boy and the dog loved each other and played happily as dear friends. But one day the dog did something the boy’s parents didn’t like. To appease his parents, the boy had to send the dog away. Years passed, and the boy forgot there had ever been a dog . But inside him there was still a place where something was missing. When he was a man, the missing place called him so strongly that he had to go in search of what he needed.
His search brought him to the edge of a forest. Not knowing why, he found himself sitting, waiting. Slowly, gradually, two burning eyes appeared in the darkness of the forest. The young man waited. Slowly, gradually, a long pointed nose emerged. The young man waited. Finally, out of the forest, slinking, there came an animal: thin, scarred, muddy, matted with burrs. You would hardly know it had ever been a dog.
The young man greeted it softly: Hello. The ugly dog stopped, untrusting. The young man felt in his body the memory stirring of the good and happy times with his friend. He said to the animal before him: I want to know how it has been for you, all these years in exile. And in his own way the dog told him, this, and this. Sad, lonely, scared, bitter. The young man told the dog that he had heard it. He heard all that he had gone through.
And with this hearing, the dog visibly softened, became warmer and more trusting. After some time, it came close enough to be touched. When the young man touched the dog, he could feel the missing place inside him begin to fill in. And soon after he took the dog home, and gave it a bath and a warm place by the fire — after it felt loved again — it was no longer ugly. It was beautiful.
This is what I offer to you as we round out the year: What is part of yourself you dislike? Tolerate? Maybe even outright hate?
Maybe it’s your inner critic. Maybe it’s your needy part. The approval-seeking part. The critical part. The argumentative part. The bossy part. The needs to be right all the time part. The fixer part. The gossipy part. My part I’m struggling with mightily right now is my judgmental part; judgmental of self, EXTREMELY judgmental of others.
Whatever your part, try this out:
First, name it: “I am struggling with my inner critic part.”
Second, observe all the ways in which you may have tried to snuff out this part. Shame, self-recrimination; perhaps you’ve tried to meditate or journal or therapy your way out of this part, tried to perfect yourself, cleanse yourself of this part. Maybe you’ve taken courses that promise to rid you of this part, maybe you’ve tried to improve yourself in a 100 different ways just so that you wouldn’t have this part or this part would finally, finally quiet down.
Third: Accept those ways have probably not worked. That’s okay. It’s not your fault.
Fourth: Pull out your pen and paper. Write, at the top: “Hello, ______ part. What is it like to be you? What do you need me to know? What are your concerns and fears?”
Fifth, write with abandon. Let that part’s voice be truly heard, maybe for the first time ever or in decades.
Sixth: Sit with it all, the pain of that part, its exile, its lonely years in the forest, unwanted and unheard, discarded by the person it most loves: you.
Seventh: Write back a letter of raw, sincere apology and validation. Come up with a few ways in which you will now tend to this part, instead of dismissing or shaming it, according to its needs. Perhaps your inner critic part has told you it fears it will never be good enough for you. Tell it you are working on having your own, and its back, and though it’s a process you are figuring out that you will stumble in, you are committed to it. Perhaps your needy part has told you it fears it will never find true love. Tell it, if that were to be the case, you will build you and it a precious life you can both love on your own.
Eighth: When the part shows up again and again, as it will, testing you, seeing if, like the exiled dog in the forest, it is truly welcome in your home now or if you are going to abandon it again, turn again and again to your journal and let it write you, and respond tenderly, as you would a scared child. Show it how you will now take care of it and give it what it needs, over and over again, as long as it takes.
Ninth: Continue forward in your life in this shifted way, welcoming back home all of your exiled parts, one by one, until you rest in your imperfect wholeness of the messy human that you are.
My offering to you this December, this season of turning inwards, this time of short days and dark nights, is this: reclaim your parts. Welcome them back home. Try, awkwardly and bravely and imperfectly, to love them again, as you did once when you were a child. Know it will feel strange and often bad and that you shall keep going anyways.
Know this is the path to your wholeness.
Know that you deserve this wholeness.
Know that your most despised parts contain your greatest treasures.
Know that you are brave enough to do this all.