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Embracing Your Past

Giving credit where credit is due, the idea for this blog—letting go of shame from the past—came from a discussion on my Food and Feelings message board ( I’m talking about still feeling overwhelming distress thinking about something you did ages ago. Maybe you used to drink a lot or do drugs, were wildly indiscriminate in your sexual partners, were a real goof off or a prima donna, or took advantage of friends and family.

Everyone has moments (okay, months or years) they’re not proud of. You know, those times you can’t believe you did what you did. How could you have been so cruel to your siblings? Why on earth would you have put your parents through such pain? Did you really do that to your best friend? What kind of parent were you who could do that to her children? How could you have cheated/lied/betrayed someone you loved like that? I don’t need to go on because I bet that without much prompting you can recall your misdeeds as if they happened yesterday. I know I can!

The point is how you feel about them now. If you’re still horrified at and shunning that part of you that acted out against yourself or others, it’s time to make peace. We all do unfortunate things we’re not proud of, especially in youth. That’s how we learn compassion for human frailty, how we recognize that people can slip up and make mistakes and still go on, how we discover that change and redemption are possible.
The worst thing you can do with the memory of who you wished you weren’t back then is to pretend it didn’t happen or closet it away and keep it secret. It did happen and it’s about time you neutralize whatever it was so that you can forgive yourself and move on.

First, realize that everyone has deep, dark, shameful secrets to greater or lesser extent. Second, acknowledge that this is not because we’re inherently bad or sinful but because we’re human, flawed creatures. Next, slowly bring yourself back to the person you were who still puts a lump in your throat. Understand that you were doing the best you could at the time (even though it wasn’t very good), that there were attenuating circumstances, and that you were a little messed up back then. Now send that old injured self compassionate, understanding, loving, tender thoughts. Throw in a whole bunch of forgiveness and maybe have a little cry—or a little laugh—over your behavior.

Here’s a secret: the way to overcome the shame of your past is to be proud of how you handle it in the present. And that means embracing it, then letting it go.