Suddenly, I am from another generation. Suddenly, it is 35 years ago that I was a 10-year-old child. I noticed this yesterday.
My son disrupted his martial arts class with a behavior beyond his control. The teachers did not know that, at the time, yet they treated him with kindness and respect and took care not to embarrass him while keeping the needs of the other students in mind.
This is not how it would have happened 35 years ago, in my world. What would have happened 35 years ago is something completely different.
When I was a child, I went to Sunday school in rural Australia with my cousin, once. I asked inappropriate questions about the story of the day and so I wasn’t allowed to read aloud (my favorite thing to do), “you think you deserve to read after a question like that?”.
I was shy and during game time I kept to myself and didn’t jump into the middle of the circle to take my turn at doing some silly miming thing. The pastor swept around the circle with his black dress flying and flung his finger out and pointed at me while he cried bitterly, “that little girl! That little girl there! She didn’t join in!” It was absurdly terrifying.
This kind of thing happened constantly. Shame and contempt being flung at me from all corners. No doubt a result of shame and contempt having been flung at my tormentors.
I thought I was over it when I forgave my father for the direct and intimate abuse he put me through and when I forgave my immediate family for their complicity. But there was more. That abuse was the hardened crust, and underneath is the pus.
Underneath, there’s still a feeling that I should be ashamed of myself.
More specifically, ashamed of being my Best Self; ashamed of having an opinion that is challenging to others (like at Sunday School); ashamed of having preferences; ashamed of achieving greatly; ashamed of being good at things.
A whole lot of social conditioning went into this. (In this life and in past lives.) And I am overjoyed to see that my children are getting less of it, as are other kids—like this young woman whose father (who has climbed the seven summits) takes her adventuring with him.
So my next task is to forgive my parents and teachers for telling me, all those years ago that I “shouldn’t behave that way”; shouldn’t ask so many questions; shouldn’t be so bold with grownups; shouldn’t take on too much academically; shouldn’t backpack around China at 19; shouldn’t drive long distances in Australia alone…
All of this should-ing seeped in to my psyche. So that when I was on the verge of achieving something great, I would sabotage myself so as not to incur the contempt and shame.
I remember being on the verge of winning a legal argument. At the last second, I averted my eyes from my opponent’s and forfeited the moment. This emboldened her to carry on and cost me a lot, financially.
I remember that after submitting stellar academic work one time I would follow up with shoddy work the next. My professors were bewildered and my grades suffered.
I squandered invaluable networking opportunities when I was seeing some success as an actor in NYC.
I didn’t sabotage anyone else; just myself. I showed up to jobs on time and worked hard, but whenever it came time to step up; to shine; to grab the brass ring, I just — didn’t.
I know my father was trying to keep me safe and my mother was trying to keep me respectable. Conditioning me with shame was their perverse reaction to a perverted world.
Understanding intellectually how this happened to me helps me see the baggage and understand the stinky wrinkled mess. I can choose, or not, to divest myself of it.
I choose to. My first step, when I need to forgive, is always to sit still and accept the moment. So, I am looking out for those moments when I tell myself, “you don’t want that — that leads to success. And success leads to recognition and that’s not safe or respectable for you.”
When those moments come up, my task is to let the feeling work its way through me, let it go, and choose a new thought.
Hey, universe, “I do want success. Success leads to satisfaction and in this world, 35 years later, it’s perfectly safe and respectable.”