Thanks for your comments here and “offline,” folks, and to those of you who read without commenting! I will return now to my story of the healing shame process.
The ultimate purpose of healing shame is not just to have more access to more of myself, but also to be better able to be in relationships of what generative somatics calls “centered accountability.” Centered accountability means not taking too much responsibility, and not taking too little. We tend to err in both directions. Some of us tend more towards over-accountability– “After you. No, after you! No, I insist, after you!” Others tend towards under-accountability: “Not my problem!” And many of us do both – either swinging back & forth between the two ends of this continuum, or being over-accountable in some relationships (e.g. towards people with power over us) and under-accountable in others (e.g. towards people we have power over).
On a more subtle level, what seems like one end of the continuum can actually be both. For instance, in a recent coaching session with Wendy, I worked on an incident from last Spring where I delayed communication about a carpool that needed to leave early because I was afraid to disturb one of the people involved. This ended up contributing to significant inconvenience for a number of people, including causing the work crew responsible for breakfast setup to arrive late for their shift. On the surface, this seems like under-accountability; I failed to communicate in a timely way. After hearing more about the situation, though, my coach suggested that I might actually have been being over-accountable to the other person’s desire to not be disturbed.
Why was I avoiding knocking on her door? There were differences of race and class between us, and I had imagined that sharing my AirBnB and rental car would be a way to build relationship across these differences. In reality, there were a lot of things about the setup of how we were sharing resources that were triggering to both of us. The workshop we were attending was intense, and we did not have (or make) time to attend to our interactions and process these triggers. So, when she retreated to her room and didn’t come out, I collapsed inwardly, and couldn’t bring myself to disturb her until what seemed like the last possible moment – which, in her view, was way too late for her to be ready in time for my departure.
Wendy’s assessment was that I was being over-accountable to the other person and under-accountable to my own needs, as well as under-accountable to the needs of the larger collective we were part of. We worked on this through little role plays, where she would give me a one-liner like “I just need my space,” and I would practice responding, first in an over-accountable way, then in an under-accountable way, and then centering and finding that “middle way.”
Right after this, Wendy told me that the next step in the healing shame process was to work on self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is necessary in order for us to take more full and centered accountability for how we have actually harmed others. She said that the inability to forgive ourselves contributes to continued shame, which blocks our aliveness and our accountability. We need to build our “muscles” of forgivability and ability to forgive others. I trusted her and the process, but didn’t understand at first how forgiving myself would help me be more accountable. Isn’t forgiving myself just letting myself off the hook for the thing that led me to cause harm?
At our next session, she explained the process. We begin with the sentence:
“Even though _______________, I am forgivable”
and fill in the blank with something I feel ashamed about. For instance, if we had kept working on the previous incident, it would have been something like, “Even though I made the work crew late, I am forgivable.” Then, she has me say the sentence out loud, and she responds, “Yes, Becca, even though you made the work crew late, you ARE forgivable.” Repeat this at least 4 times, centering and feeling what comes up each time.
We actually picked a subtler thing to work on in that session – my sentence became “Even though I am impacted by sexism, I am forgivable” – because as I’ve worked on my internalized sexism, I’ve realized that part of how it sits is that I feel ashamed that I’ve let it impact me. Now, I should perhaps explain this a bit. My father’s intent, I think, was to raise me to be as free as possible from the effects of sexism. For instance, when I was around 3 or 4 (which would have been 1970 or ‘71), a visitor to our home asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I answered “an airplane pilot.” The visitor laughed, but my father said something to the effect of, “don’t laugh, by the time she grows up that should be possible.” Somehow, hearing these kinds of messages, part of what I internalized was that I was supposed to be able to rise above sexism.
So, Wendy and I practiced with “even though I am impacted by sexism, I am forgivable.” She then gave me a homework assignment, to create a “self-forgiveness bowl.” The bowl was to be filled with strips of paper, each one with something I am ashamed of or at fault for written on it. So, each day for the month of December, I picked one at random each morning before my sitting meditation. Before looking at it, I would do my other meditation practice for about 10 minutes. Then I would look at the slip and repeat the statement a few times, and imagine Wendy or others responding in agreement that I am forgivable. Here is my list (with a few omissions for my own and others’ privacy):
Even though I’m afraid of conflict, I’m forgivable.
Even though I put [X] in danger, I’m forgivable.
Even though I am impacted by sexism, I’m forgivable.
Even though I am just as impacted by sexism as everyone, I’m forgivable.
Even though I avoid conflict in ways that causes myself and others difficulties, I’m forgivable.
Even though I dinged our new car, I’m forgivable.
Even though I screwed up [my project], I’m forgivable.
Even though I screwed up [his project], I’m forgivable.
Even though I am rich and white and sometimes wield my power unskillfully, I’m forgivable.
Even though I make mistakes, I’m forgivable.
Even when I am insecure, I’m forgivable.
Even when I am bombastic, I’m forgivable.
Even though I take advantage of others, I’m forgivable.
Even though I am opportunistic, I’m forgivable.
Even though I take more than my share, I’m forgivable.
Even though I am racist, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m classist, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m ableist, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m judgmental, I’m forgivable.
Even though I blame Don for things that aren’t his fault, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m triggered about sexism a lot around Don, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m occupying stolen land, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m benefitting from slavery, I’m forgivable.
Even though I get strident and defensive in the face of sexism, I’m forgivable.
Even though I get contracted and sulky in the face of sexism, I’m forgivable.
Even though I’m benefitting from economic inequality and oppression, I’m forgivable.
Even though I think I’m better than other people, I’m forgivable.
Even though I forget important things, I’m forgivable.
The practice felt very powerful. I realized, finally, as I started doing it in earnest, that it is only when I allow the possibility that a wrong-doing is forgivable that I am able to fully face into and own that I have done it. Until then, there is at least some energy being devoted to denial.
The practice reminds me of the collective confessional recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This “Viddui” includes the “Ashamnu” prayer, an alphabetic acrostic of different sins we have, as a community, committed: “Ashamnu– we have trespassed; Bagadnu– we have dealt treacherously…etc.” This link includes the whole prayer and more about it, including the information that the prayer is also part of the daily liturgy, which I either never knew or forgot, since I don’t use the traditional Jewish liturgy in my daily practice.
Many years at Yom Kippur I ask myself, “have I trespassed?” etc. If not, I just accept that we have some collective responsibility for each others’ sins. But now, having done the individual daily practice from somatics, I think a better question than “have I trespassed,” might be, “how have I trespassed?”
For example, this morning I pulled “Even though I am classist, I am forgivable.” My first fleeting thought, was rejecting, “no, I’m not classist.” But then I asked myself, how am I classist? And I immediately thought of how judgmental I feel when I see typos and misspellings in others’ writing. Knowing that I may be forgiven for judgmentally imposing my highly-educated standards on others helps me face into this habit, and acknowledge it as classism.
This acknowledgement is so important. I think it’s one of the steps towards actually being forgiven. A few weeks ago while writing my “morning pages” (a writing practice from Julia Cameron’s Artists Way that I’m beginning to incorporate into my daily practice), the following came:
What does it take to be not only forgivable, but forgiven?
- Acknowledge the suffering I have caused – by my action, or inaction
- Take (centered) responsibility for it – “I see that I have caused, or contributed to, your suffering”
- Apologize for it – “I am sorry for your suffering and for my role in it.”
- Commit to doing the work it will take to change – including
- 1) healing the places/ways I have been wounded that contribute to this behavior, and
- 2) working to change the patterns, norms, laws and institutions that lead to it.
- Ask if there is anything i/we can do to make restitution / repair the damage done
- Work to repair the damage done
What if, as [one of my readers told me in a private communication] we no longer have access to the person whom we’ve been racist towards?
- Write the apology, put it on an altar, or in the/a “wailing wall,” or burn it
- Pay it forward if you can’t pay it back
- Don’t stop with an eye for an eye, just making it up to one person because you harmed one person – make a new habit or tradition or practice, e.g. supporting a cause that’s working on changing things
- Commit to some awareness practice, to help you avoid continuing/repeating the supremacist behavior
- Don’t spend too much time in self-flagellation – this puts too much emphasis on you, rather than on the person you’ve harmed. But don’t ignore your feelings either… investigate. What was happening for me in the moment when I acted that way? What triggers were tripped? And what could I do differently next time?
What will it take for us to collectively make these steps? “Even though we have perpetrated climate destruction, we are forgivable”? Perhaps we need to invent new collective confessionals, or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, or other society-wide rites of passage like Joan Halifax talks about in this wonderful interview with Krista Tippet in On Being.
We certainly need more collective acknowledgement in order to take centered, collective accountability. And perhaps believing in our collective forgivability is a key.