My bad child practice is as follows: when I notice a feeling of shame or awkwardness, because something I did wasn’t “right,” I take a moment to stop, pay attention to that feeling fully, get as aware as possible of the feeling and what I think generated it, then I tell myself, and this is very important, “it’s OK, I’m just a bad child.” I find this releases myself and others. Below is a longer explanation of this practice and its effects.
In the introspective work I have been doing over the last few months, I have been focusing particularly on expressions or evidence of “shadow,” most simply areas or times of discomfort, when I feel a rush of hurt or shame and am inclined to blame someone or something outside myself or put myself down. “Shadow” shows up and may be discovered through any number of other feelings (including positive feelings), but my spectrum of hurt and shame is most pernicious and appears to be a large tip of my shadow iceberg.
A few weeks ago, I started to notice, and dwell in, my hurt and shame whenever I felt them in small ways that normally I would do nothing about; typically such small twinges of hurt and shame got internally absorbed or accommodated. I would cover over the little hurt or shame and move on. The bad child practice came about because I started noticing my own accumulation of absorbed or accommodated hurt and shame. I started noticing each feather of hurt and shame as it was added. The feather metaphor comes from something quoted by a woman scientist in a recent NYT article about the Salk Institute: “A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.” I also noticed, by observation and being told, that others had similar “feathers” of hurt and shame, for which, in most cases, I felt relatively easily compassionate. From my history, I know I have a thing about being a bad child. I think most people do. As all these reflections pottered around in my mind, the bad child practice emerged.
I firmly decided that every time I felt a feather of hurt or shame, I would look at it, be as conscious of the feeling as I could be and then let go of the part in which I put myself down; and told myself, “it’s ok, I’m just a bad child.” It’s allowing myself to be flawed, without self-indulgence, avoidance, or accommodation. This practice is similar to what a friend and others have called “self-compassion,” and, most crucially, it connects my condition of “bad child” with bad child in every other person. For me, the bad child practice only works if I consciously, attentively, and kindly join compassion for others with compassion for myself, in both directions. In other words, it is a simultaneous release for myself and others to be flawed, to have shadow. This is not covering over or condoning. Indeed, there may be need to avoid, very consciously, denial, or accommodation of self or others. There may be need to speak, inquire, listen, act, and engage for “justice,” for acknowledgement, for reparation, and for forgiveness – in relation to myself, or someone else, or both, or many. I look at such cases closely. Always, I can’t resolve them, at least not right away or completely, but I add what I learn from this attention to the knowledge and questions that my purposeful “good child” will use when it’s time again for her to reflect and act.
What I mean by forgiveness has also evolved, and, recently, I realized it is not a simple release of the origin of hurt and the hurt itself. It is not letting go in a simple way. The hurt does not go away. If small, it may be forgotten. But if something brings the memory back, even if unconsciously in the senses and the body, the hurt is still there and there may be a harking back to which another person may say, “how long will you carry that? When will you get over it?” In turn, such a response may lead to a rehashing of the original infraction with all the defensiveness and judgments that such hashing involves. However, in many cases, what is needed is attention to what is present that is bringing back the memory in one’s body and feeling.
With this understanding of hurt, forgiveness means a two-fold layering. First, it requires a mutual acknowledgement that the hurt doesn’t go away. Once there is hurt it is always in your body.* The “mutual” may involve another person, or people, or be wholly within yourself. The second layer of forgiveness, folded over, is fully uncovering and making explicit that what one feels for the other person, or oneself, or the world, or some combination of these is so much more than the hurt. In the simplest terms of forgiving another person, this means saying, “the hurt will never go away but my relationship with you is so much more than that hurt. Who you are for me is so much more than that hurt.”
I acknowledge that there are hurts so grievous that there may be very little, or even nothing else, in relation to the person or people who committed the acts that hurt. In such situations, the forgiveness, when one can get there, is inside oneself, and also in relation to the world: “I am so much more than that hurt. And (if one can get there) the world has and gives so much more than that hurt.”
Circling back to my “bad child practice,” it is a form of forgiveness for oneself and others. The bad child part of me will never go away, and I am so much more than the bad child part of me.
The bad child practice is not a license to harm others. It is a practice to engage and get beyond hurt and shame.
So what happens if my hurt and/or shame issue from an interaction that is deeply hurtful, harmful, unfair, or destructive? In my bad child practice, when I look closely and with full awareness at my feelings of discomfort in small instances, it builds a practice and capacity I use in larger and more significant instances, to notice and sit with the effects on myself and on others. If these effects include harm or potential harm, the next step is not the bad child practice of “it’s ok, I’m just a bad child,” but a conscious effort to avoid the most common traps of covering over (denial or avoidance), or accommodation (silencing oneself or putting oneself down), or attack/defensiveness (you are as much or more at fault, as bad or worse than me!); and, instead of these, to engage in honest, flawed, vulnerable, and courageous ways with oneself and any others involved. I don’t always make this effort; it’s exhausting and I fear anger and judgment in response to engagement I might initiate. I can’t resolve everything, I tell myself. Sometimes that is a reasonable decision, but I also risk slipping into an insidious practice of accommodation – of myself or of others or both. That’s a topic for another piece.
If you want to try out my bad child practice, here’s a caution. As with any practice, the bad child practice can decline into a narrowing habit rather than an opening into new and deeper awareness and reflection, so I would try it for a short period (two weeks?), see what you learn from it, and check once in a while that it isn’t becoming a crutch.
At its best, my bad child practice has made me a kinder and more courageous (risk-taking!) person who is more patient with both joy and pain, and even with boredom and waiting.
* And there is also multi-generational transmission, a topic too large and complex for this small piece, but definitely worth adding to one’s deepening attention, awareness, and reflections.
Acknowledgement: As with anything I write and any knowledge I have, the sources are out in the world as much as in me. Usually, this does not need to be said. For this piece, I want to explicitly acknowledge that it draws on what I have learned over years of engaging with the wisdom of colleagues (Public Conversations Project, University of San Diego, RISE San Diego, and others), friends (my wise and loving friends in San Diego and elsewhere in the world), family (my mother, my daughters, and others), and knowledge traditions (academic, story-telling, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy, and others). What I’ve written here comes from how all of these sources have helped me understand – an ongoing process – myself and my world. If you see your knowledge in here, it probably is your knowledge in here. Thank you.