My husband and I recently celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary. Not a milestone year, for sure, but I believe every year of (reasonably) happy marriage that passes deserves to be celebrated. As we talked that day about the fact that we had already been married three years, my husband brought up my past marriages, and through the ensuing conversation, realized that despite my previous (and to date, longest) marriage lasting four years, I had never celebrated a 4th anniversary. The reason for this was that my divorce was in progress when my 4th wedding anniversary rolled around and, well, it just would have been weird to “celebrate” at that point. So next year, when my 4th anniversary with Nich rolls around, I think we will celebrate as if it is a milestone – because to me, it will be.
Our conversation that day was lighthearted and positive. I felt neutral about my past and the fact that I have had two failed marriages. But this has not always been the case. Too many times before, my past failings have caused me to feel intense shame. Too many times before, I have sunk into that dark place of “not enough” and “you’re such a failure” when thinking or talking about my past and the mistakes I have made. It’s not just the “big” failures of two divorces – it’s the “little” failures, too. I even replay these events like they’re a broken record in my mind. Boy, is that fun. And when I replay those events, decisions, actions, etc., I often feel that horrible sinking sensation that screams “shame” in my life. That sensation that feels like fear, extreme nervousness, even nausea. I know when I feel those things, I am probably sinking into shame, and I will probably spend anywhere from a few seconds to days thinking about what I did wrong and how I screwed up.
I know I am not alone. I have had conversations with friends and family members about this very thing. It seems these past mistakes – even if we have dealt with them – have a way of hanging on. They creep up and remind us that we screwed up, failed to live up to our expectations, let someone down, let ourselves down… they tell us we’re just not good enough. I can discuss my past with my therapist and work through who I was and where I was at that particular time in my life. I can acknowledge that either I didn’t know better or I was not emotionally where I am now. I can confess to God that I wasn’t acting like the person He wants me to be, ask for forgiveness, and know with all of my heart that His grace has covered me. But still. Still I fight the shame that tries to trap me with the lies that I have not changed, I have not grown, I am not forgiven.
This, I believe, will be an ongoing struggle for me. It is getting easier to tell myself that my mistake happened to me, it doesn’t define me, but that does not completely erase the feelings of shame I experience when I examine my mistakes and the ways I have failed myself or others. And that’s probably OK because every time I start to feel those sensations that I have come to recognize as shame, I have an opportunity to practice positive self-talk. I have an opportunity to ask God to help me move past my past. I have an opportunity to embrace the grace and mercies that are new every morning, and I have an opportunity to give grace and mercy to myself, which in turn, helps me to give grace and mercy to others. And the truth is I have changed. I have grown. I am forgiven. I have received grace and mercy. I don’t have to let my past mistakes and failures define me, and I can recognize and believe that just because I failed to live up to my own expectations does not mean that I am not worthy of love and belonging.
We are all fighting the past. No one has a perfect track record. Everyone makes mistakes. I wish we would talk about our mistakes more freely and openly instead of what seems to be the norm in today’s society of trying to fabricate lives that appear to be without blemish, but that takes time, practice, vulnerability, and a lot of courage. Acknowledging it within ourselves is a great first step towards talking about it with others. It’s not easy to deal with ourselves and our mistakes, but I promise it gets easier with time and practice, and the best part is that with that same time and practice, it gets easier to love the one who messed up and embrace the messed-upness that constitutes our imperfect lives. Shame won’t let us embrace the messed up beings that we are, but as I have written before, shame dies when you talk about it, so today and every day, I encourage you to speak your truth. Even if it hurts, speak your truth. Even if it’s embarrassing, speak your truth. Even if you feel ashamed – especially if you feel ashamed – speak your truth. Little by little, the hurt goes away, the embarrassment fades, and the shame retreats.
And one day, you find yourself, just like I did, talking about something that once caused a tremendous amount of shame, and feeling absolutely nothing.