Self-judgment is a nasty critter.
Under the guise of inviting us to learn, it amplifies any mistakes we’ve made and makes it hard to forgive ourselves when things don’t go as planned.
Self-judgment is like tethering ourselves to a heavy weight called the past. With that weight, it’s hard to make a mistake and move on, as in “Oops, that didn’t work out as planned.” or “Clearly, I have more to learn here.” or “Next time I’ll have an opportunity to improve.”
Loaded down by the past, self-judgment twists this into “You see? You screwed up again.”
When that judging voice takes over, we’re no longer living in the powerful, creative present, but hooked into an unforgiving past.
The perils of self-judgment
I have a wonderful younger relative, who, like me, loves horses. When I watched her riding lessons when she was a teenager, I used to wince at all the self-deprecating statements that spewed out of her mouth. When I asked her if she needed to be so hard on herself, she said. “That’s the way I motivate myself to learn.”
I love her dearly, but she was wrong on that one. Whipping ourselves does not make us stronger or more able to learn. It just leaves welts.
Reflecting on our progress on a task, or in her case, a riding lesson, can help us improve. That’s assuming we can do it with care, self-compassion, and objectivity, rather than emotional self-flagellation.
The heaviness and suffering that come through our self-judgment is a sure sign that we’re tied to the past. All that weight doesn’t help us prepare for the future.
I had a dream recently that came with a big message. I felt a ponderous disappointment in myself, guilt about where I might have failed others, and a sense of heaviness and shame. Yet in that dream, I also heard a new message. I saw how others were fine, the world had gone on, I had learned, and I no longer needed to hang on to the burden of my judgmental feelings.
I saw that carrying the weight of the past was restraining me from loving myself and whole-heartedly giving to others in the present.
The message I received in my dream was, “Step out of those old-guilt ridden clothes. They are not you.”
It was a powerful piece of guidance and one I will continue to ponder.
A gift as we age
Letting go of self-judgment is one of the gifts we can gain as we grow older and see our mortality staring us in the face.
How ridiculous it becomes to cling to the ragged clothes of guilt and self-judgment that never really fit us.
Maybe getting older is the permission we need to be more peaceful, accept what is, and create our lives from there. (Not that we need to wait!)
In his late seventies, the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote a few songs that I believe he could only have written towards the end of his life. (He died at 82.) In his song, “Going Home,” we hear his permission to finally let go of his burdens.
For any of us, a burden could be having to prove something, make up for something, or carry the weight of shame and guilt. A burden could be having to compose a great song, write a book that mega-sells, or change the world.
Speaking as the voice of a loving Guide, he tells Leonard:
He [Leonard] wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
Without my sorrow
To where it’s better
Without my burden
Behind the curtain
Without this costume
That I wore
If you feel like you still need a permission slip to let go of the burden of self-judgment (even though you don’t), consider yourself served.
I suspect that I may never be able to let go of all of mine.
Yet in letting go, I trust I will keep finding more space to love and appreciate the brilliant is-ness of life.