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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Giving grace to myself

"You need to give yourself the grace that Jesus gives you."

My counselor's message to me was simple. One of the reason for my stress, anxiety and depression has to do with my being rather hard on myself. For a long time, I would have flashbacks about my past and I would lay it into myself rather hard. Sometimes these "flashbacks" are paralyzing and it causes me to not function properly.

In fact, my overly self-criticism has caused me even to sabotage myself quite a few times. I did this in school, at work, and even in my relationships. I get so critical about myself, I transfer this criticisms to my family. I want them to be perfect wife, son and daughters, all the time thinking I am helping them to be all they can be. The high standards I set for myself becomes a way for me to strive for perfection. So I keep the pressure up on myself, as well as on my family. I thought I had a biblical mandate to do so, too - very much along the lines of Philippians 3:12 - 16:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

I became very serious with my kids as I push them to do their best. I push myself the hardest, thinking that this is the way to set an example.

Until I realize that what I was doing was actually stifling. To myself and to everyone around me. The harder I try the worse it was becoming for everyone.

So, Jan, my counselor tells me, "Jesus imparts grace to you. You are a forgiven child of God. He wants you now to impart grace to yourself."

As I internalize the new values, I was able to apply this gradually. A few days later, I recalled an event in my life that had caused me a lot of grief and shame each time I used to recall it. It was a simple episode really. It was just something that happened while I was in college. A friend had asked me to introduce him as a candidate for the Student Senate. Being an international student unfamiliar with student body politics and customs, I didn't realize that people actually prepare speeches and recite poems or such like at events like these. All I did was go up and gave a very impromptu, but passionate story of my experience with this person. It was from the heart. I think I did a good job with telling the story. I seemed to have the audience with me.

The thing was, the night before I stayed up all night finishing a philosophy paper. So, I was really tired. Still it was a heartfelt story told from my heart with deep sincerity and emotion. At the point in the story when I was supposed to introduce my friend... I forgot his name! I really did! It took me a few seconds of utter shock and panic before I was able to calm down enough to finally remember his name. With a twinkle of the eye, an audible sigh of relieve, I introduced my friend. It did make an impact and people laughed and most thought it was a deliberate act. I knew otherwise.

This incident used to be played in my mind every so often. As I relived this episode in my mind powerful emotions of shame and grief would flood through me. I would tell myself what kind of an ass I really was and that I nearly blew my friends chance of getting elected (he was), etc. I would really get into myself, and even say things like, "See, mom was right about you all along." or, "You are just a stupid know-nothing sonofabitch." and on and on.

This was not just the flashback I would be plagued with. I would also be plagued with others. Some are about other public faux pas, others are about sins that I had committed. Yet others are about things I had done that were just pure foolishness. Or selfishness. When such memories are brought back to me, I would close my eyes, or grimace or wince, and really feel deep distress, shame, grief, and disheartened. Although sometimes it might be just a deep depressed feeling accompanying the memories, often this is conjoined by my calling myself all sorts of nasty names too rude for this page.

Such self-deprecating thoughts has caused some really unhealthy habits and practices in my life. One is procastination. Another is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of criticisms. And worse, as I alluded above, it has caused me to be overly critical in my relationships with those closest to me.

However, when I learned to give grace to myself, I found the first step was to just be able to look at each of these flashbacks and be realistic about them. For instance, after my counselor had told me a couple of times that I needed to extend myself God's grace, I began to put it into practice. When I had that flashback of the speech before the student body introducing the Student Senate candidate, for instance, I said to myself,

"You didn't know what was expected. Andy did not explain that to you because he assumed you knew. You didn't know because ou were not familiar with the local customs. You did what you could, and you did a good job considering all the factors. Now you know about the customs. Next time, you know you have to prepare."
Once I did it once, I was able to do it again. Each time I had a flashback to an incident, a sin, a disappointment, I was able to put it into its context and realize that I only have to give myself the grace to fail, to learn and to grow. Like Joan said, I was able to let myself be human! Life was no longer as stressful. Relationships with family, especially, but also with colleagues, healed. I guess I got to be more relaxed and people liked it more to be around me. It is amazing that God is able to give grace to someone like me, and I finally realized what it means to fully accept his grace.

Then I thought, why is it that I got to be such a perfectionistic individual, and wondered if such verses in the Bible as "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" and the passage in Philippians 3, taken out of context, encourages such dysfunction?