“Growth begins when we begin to accept our weaknesses.” ~Jean Vanier
I went out with my mom this Sunday, a beautiful, sunny, fall day in San Francisco. As we sat on a bench looking out over the bay and ate our vegetarian spring rolls, she reminded me of an incident that happened when I was a teenager when she and I had traveled to the Grand Canyon.
In a nutshell, I had gotten irate over a family that was feeding the ground squirrels French fries right next to a sign that said “Don’t Feed the Squirrels.” I went up to them and, apparently, was very vehement in my request that they stop feeding the F&*$% squirrels their F&*%$ junk food.
My mom laughed as she recounted the story (and how she now tells it to others), but I froze up in shame.
I remember how badly I felt afterwards for losing my cool like that—how I felt like shrinking up and disappearing. What to my mom was a funny story of a teenage freak-out, to me was yet another reminder of how flawed I am.
The story reminded me of hundreds of other times—some as recent as a couple of weeks ago—when I lost my temper and lost control. And how each time, I’ve felt the cold fingers of shame, guilt, and regret, and wonder despairingly what is so wrong with me that I can’t seem to stop blowing up at people.
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who forgive me my faults and flaws as I forgive theirs. I can never hold a grudge for very long because I know how it feels to make mistakes.
Always, when I’ve lost it with someone, I’ve apologized profusely, and I’ve used these incidents as opportunities to look inside myself and explore what happened, what triggered my anger, and how I can help make it less likely to happen in the future.
But the truth is something that I can’t change: I have a temper, and sometimes it flares.
We all have flaws, weaknesses, and quirks. Even when we work on the things we can work on, we’ll still be human, and still make mistakes. I’m working on accepting myself as I am, including the part of that gets angry and sometimes loses control of that anger.
When I think about all the mistakes I’ve made in that regard, and especially when I feel myself starting to get lost in the shame and regret, I remind myself that if that me that I’m ashamed of were a friend of mine, I’d be able to forgive her.
I’d also be able to look on her flaws with compassion and understanding. I’d understand that she still has some work to do on her anger issues, and that she’s doing the best she can.
In those moments, I remind myself that if I can feel that kind of compassion for someone else, I can feel it for myself.
When we mess up, screw up, fall flat on our faces, make mistakes, and, in our own minds, fail, can we look at those incidents as just more opportunities to learn about ourselves and what makes us tick? Each time I get upset, I learn more about the nuances of why it happens, and the telltale signs that I’m about to blow up. Each time it happens, even though I still regret the pain I’ve caused others, I get better at knowing myself.
Good parents let their kids fall down from time to time. It teaches the kids how to soothe themselves, as well as where their limits are. It makes stronger, more confident, and more courageous kids.
Can we treat our own selves this way, picking ourselves up gently when we fall, and not berating and punishing ourselves for being human?
Here are a few tips for learning to accept our own weaknesses:
1. When faced with some part of yourself that you dislike, try to encompass that part in one non-blaming word or short phrase. Mine might be “I get mad.” Someone else’s might be “I can be judgmental” or “I eat too much when I’m sad.”
2. Consider the phrase and ask yourself: “If someone you loved had this flaw, what would you say to him or her?”
3. When you have an answer to that, turn it around and address it to yourself.
4. When you’re in the throes of self-hate, regret, or shame, do a Buddhist tonglen exercise: breathe in the pain of every other creature who struggles with that same problem, and breathe out healing and love, for all of you. This can remind you that you are not the only one who is imperfect.
5. When you can, cultivate the ability to laugh at your human foibles.