There I was, sitting in a small room on the top floor of an old brick structure in the valley of quintessential Keene – a small town sharing lakes that usher travelers from Vermont into the state of New Hampshire. Connected to an old mill along the Ashuelot River, this section was originally built in 1866 to be used as a railroad repair shop. It now hosts Antioch University’s Couple and Family Therapy Clinic, where, as a Therapist in Training, I’d sit behind one-way mirrors with my Supervisor and classmates watching live therapy sessions. On salmon-colored paper, I’d hurriedly write observations, hypotheses, and questions to offer my colleagues who would tip-toe behind the mirror trading whispers halfway through their sessions.
I was in the last official “Professional Seminar” class of my master’s program at a small liberal arts university. Although I am native to Northeast Ohio, I had chosen this school because of its emphasis on social justice, along with its experiential approach to academia. We were in finals week, which meant I was gearing up to present the project I had been anxiously preparing since the start of the program – my Theory of Change. As I took notes, I found myself staring at the notebook in front of my friend who was sitting at the table directly across from me. She was writing single words in cursive across the top of her paper. She had a way of doodling like an angel while I aggressively scribbled family genograms and wrote open-ended questions which rendered illegible, even for me. I was mesmerized as the ink flowed from the tips of her long, thin fingers with such elegance – as though she were pouring tea for the Queen of England. I recall her delicately drawing outlines of faces during most of our case presentations. She had previously obtained an undergraduate degree in art from California. I remember her stories about a french roommate, how they would compare cultural notes on philosophies of food and fashion. I had lived in California for a short stint, so I was familiar with the sun-kissed culture of art and diversity. When we first met, she wore large sunglasses and a beach hat. She walked as though she were floating on clouds, a straight giveaway to an upbringing drowned in southern charm.
When I looked down at her notebook, I saw the words in big curling letters:
“Expand” “Flexible” “Both/And” “Open” “Curious”
These are the enchanted postmodern words of change. While studying various theories on change, I had been learning how language can both be representative of and also facilitate our attitudes and feelings. How the rigidity with which we speak and think about ourselves keeps people stuck. And more importantly, how closed-off or black-and-white thinking reinforces a self-imposed sense of judgment. These patterns can be harmful to our sense of self and how we perceive others. They can also limit our ability to adjust to change, resulting in stunted growth.
Judgment can be deeply damaging, holding us back from self-acceptance and our acceptance of others. Chronic criticism has been categorized under the umbrella of emotional/psychological abuse. It can be devastatingly harmful to the person on the receiving end. Children often internalize negative messages at an early age, resulting in challenges with low self-esteem or lack of motivation. For the last several years, in an attempt to undo my own tendency to judge, I have been actively working on unjudging: on unlearning and re-learning how to speak and think about myself. Even with my active efforts to change, I still catch myself in harsh criticism imposed by negative thinking. Just last week I was pacing for several minutes thinking about how much I hated my body, as I walked from the bathroom to my bedroom and back several times while holding my left breast with one hand. I was trying to unfold the pad from my sports bra and it felt like an impossible task – one that happens nearly every time I put on one of those LuluLemon bras. I approach the situation thinking “This shouldn’t be happening! I should be able to put on a piece of clothing without having to play rugby with myself in the bedroom.” Why does my frustration turn toward self-hate rather than simply identifying the limitations of designers who continue to make sportswear for women that separate each time it goes through the wash, or curls into several folds when I try to pull it over my body? It takes constant work to move toward being more gentle with myself. It takes accessing empathy and kindness in order to do that thing everyone seems to be talking about, which is to have self-compassion. When moving toward acceptance, it helps to erase words such as “should,” “must,” “have to,” “need to,” “always,” and “never”. This rigid language enforces constriction and imposes judgment.
Brené Brown is a professor and author known for her unique research on emotions, particularly exploring shame and vulnerability. In a popular TedTalk Brown offers the following when talking about shame versus guilt:
“Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”… Guilt [says]: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame [says]: I’m sorry. I am a mistake” (Brown, 2014)
When we use judgments toward ourselves and others, those judgments breed a sense of shame. We often internalize messages like “I am bad,” “I am not good enough,” or “I am a failure.” In Brown’s description, she encourages us to separate ourselves from our actions and allow space to recognize that A: We have the ability to make different choices and B: When that space is made, it allows alternative stories to be told which can be more nurturing and gentle toward ourselves.
Within the context of relationships, I note my tendency to project my own judgments onto others. When I see someone enjoying themselves, I feel uncomfortable, often imposing a perspective of laziness. Productivity has for many years been a driving outcome of my actions. I’ve had to learn how to pick apart the idea that I was lazy if I was simply enjoying myself or others. Even now, I struggle to remind myself how I value relationships, self-care, and rest. I tune out the business and turn up the ability to be present. Doing this allows me to slow down enough to notice the smallest simple pleasures sitting right in front of me. Like the way birds safely perch on a branch in my front yard, scoping the area before approaching the feeders – how their little bodies twitch in motion as their breath pushes against feathering chests. Or the way rain weighs heavy on a spring flower constricting movement when wind passes through. Or how the dog obliviously pulls dew drops from the grass and they disappear into matted hairs on her leg. When I stop and look, I can see how much around me is still moving. It’s not only okay to enjoy that, but it’s necessary and important… To. Do. Nothing. Because in doing nothing, I am able to do the things which bring me closer to what matters to me.
During my classmate’s presentation (the one who had elegantly written those words across her page) she says, “expaaaaaaaaand” while moving her hands from a prayer position out to the sides of her shoulders. This widens the imaginary space in front of her. I continue to see that image as I am reminded to slow down and get curious about what else I might see if I were to expand my perspective, without judgment.
Brown, B. (2014, October 19) Brené Brown: The Difference Between Guilt and Shame. Farnam Street. Retreived on April 10, 2022 from https://fs.blog/brene-brown-guilt-shame/#:~:text=Shame%20is%20a%20focus%20on