The most dominant image I have is me sitting on my couch staring at the ceiling. But really I was luckier than that – it was a beautiful fall, and I spent a lot of time lying in the grass soaking in the sun. In the park down the street… on the field across from the gym… on the hill by my office… resting my concussed brain, trying to cope.
I was coping not only with the concussion, but also with the effect of the concussion on my basic emotion regulation abilities. It was like there’d been a buffer zone around my feelings that had dissolved, dissipated. Hard feelings turned to panic much more easily, with a dangerous intensity. And panicking could only make things worse: spiking my heart rate, sending me down a steep dark spiral, and only aggravating the injury further.
So I had to ground myself. I had to. Feeling the grass underneath each limb, waves of guilt and shame and fear threatening to flood my system for uninterrupted hours in which I was supposed to be recuperating so I could get back to the very limited amount of work time my brain could take. Fear, shame, guilt. Fear, shame, guilt. Regret.
I have done everything right up to this point.
That’s how I would anchor myself.
I am alive, loved, and enrolled (as in, enrolled in grad school, even if I didn’t know when or how I would be able to finish). I have done everything right up to this point.
I would focus on those words, repeating them over and over and over again, for weeks and weeks.
Of course, it wasn’t true. I mean, it was true that I was alive, loved, and enrolled. But it wasn’t true that I’d done everything right. How could it be? That’s not a thing.
I said it to myself so much that it became a habit – telling myself I’d done everything right because at least I’d gotten to that point, still in the game, with people in my corner. But those good things can be true even if I haven’t done everything right. And I haven’t. I didn’t do everything right in concussion recovery; I didn’t do everything right in grad school (shh don’t tell!); and I certainly haven’t done everything right by the people who have so valiantly loved me.
Sometimes I’ve messed up and hurt only myself. Sometimes I’ve messed up and really hurt people I care about. Sometimes I’ve messed up in ways that hurt marginalized folks around me and perpetuate the very systems of oppression I’m committed to dismantling.
I want to hold these truths. I need a way to be here and to feel them and then to do the repair I can do in/for myself, in/for my relationships, and in/for my communities. Can I tolerate the reality that I have not done everything right, without getting stuck in spirals of regret or shame or self-flagellation?
The first step is feeling the feelings. And then comes speaking back, but not to negate or deny what I’m upset about having done. Not to claim rightness or say it’s okay when it’s not. What can I say instead to speak directly to/with those feelings? I’m gonna play with some ideas here, and I’d love to hear feedback and reflections from you, too!
To regret, I could say: This is how things have happened. I did what I could at the time. This is the only way it’s happened, and this is what I get to live with now.
To shame, I could say: I care about my impact. I want to understand and address the impact I’ve had. Having a negative impact doesn’t negate everything about me. Everything else is still true, too, and I can be complicated.
To self-flagellation, I could say: Actually what I need is the opposite. What I need is self-care. To do better in the world, I need to do better for myself. The more okay I am, more aware of my own feelings and holding more of my own stuff, the more responsibly I’ll behave towards other people and the more I’ll be able to do for/with other people.
Perhaps these thoughts can help me ground myself in the present and future, and engage with the pain and complexity of the past. By paying attention instead of turning away, maybe I will find an opportunity to do repair work, and maybe I can expand my capacity to do differently next time.
I am alive, loved, and employed. I’ve done a lot right up to this point. But not everything. I’ve messed up in some significant ways.
I did the best I could. I care about my impact. The more I take care of myself, the more I’ll be able to address what I can of what I’ve done, and to do better moving forward.