Judging and contracting and my old friend, Shame


Heart-marketer supreme and pal-o’-mine, Mark Silver, tells a story about how, the very month after his business passed a huge financial milestone, it did one of its worst months ever.

You don’t need to look to business for sad, weird tales of woe, either.

Lottery winners and freshly-minted celebrities routinely blow through their respective piles of currency until they’re back where, perhaps, they feel deep down that they belong, if not even lower. People on the fast track to real love will, all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, do something colossally stupid and often uncharacteristic to push someone away: I’m recalling a particularly egregious incident where, en route to my own bed one late night with my brand new, kinda-sorta-I-hope-I-hope boyfriend, I tiptoed past some sleeping guests sacked out on my Brooklyn apartment floor and said, pointing, “I slept with him…and I slept with him.” It was lucky for me my new swain had the courage and openness to share his hurt and befuddlement, albeit a bit later, after he’d already gotten laid. (And, frankly, it’s also lucky that my roommate and I only had two guests visiting from college that weekend. Another slutty story for another day.)

What is it about getting a bit of what you want that sends you running screaming from it? Why, oh, why are we so quick with the self-sabotage?

I’m not sure, but I have some theories. Change is painful because we don’t know what’s on the other side of it, the devil you know, and all that. There’s also the starkly terrifying feeling of making oneself vulnerable: to love, to need, to want. You have these great, toughening experiences growing up that inoculate you against stupid, life-squelching hazards like walking off a cliff or setting yourself on fire, but a side effect is toughening up. That excellent scar tissue that builds up to protect you from the bad stuff can keep you from accessing so much of the good stuff.

The longer I live this vida loca, the more it seems to me that if the job of youth is learning, the job of maturity is unlearning while preserving the learning. I’ve said it so many times my friends are sick of hearing it, but I really feel like my work from roughly 40 years old until now (almost 48 as of this writing) has been about getting back to the me I was at 10, playful, curious, reasonably carefree, openly loving, and decidedly non-post-ironic, only somehow while retaining the juice and the life and the lessons of the experiences I picked up along the way. Carrying pain on your back while opening your arms to more of the same? Or, like a fairy tale dragon, painfully peeling away layer after layer of protective, scaly coating to reveal the handsome prince within? (Calling Joseph Campbell!)

I suppose you can choose the metaphor or myth that works for you. I suppose you can write your own. It seems to me that the more important thing here (assuming we want to move past the rolling backward into the slop) is learning your defense mechanisms and the feelings associated with them and probably some of the tools that work best for putting the brakes on (or winching yourself out of the slop) so that you spend less time in the slop and more time moving forward.

Me? My high sign is judging. Maybe that’s a Virgo thing, maybe it’s an ACOA thing, maybe it’s just Colleen’s Special Thing. But if the thing that’s moving me forward the fastest these days is the ability to remain open and connected with love and kindness and The Force, the thing that shuts that shit down lightning-quick is judging. Creates a delightfully safe distance between myself and anything meaningful, while pushing away all but the most stalwart of loved ones. 99% of the time, judging is like telling happiness to go fuck itself. And the other 1% of the time, it’s like telling it to go fuck itself at a slightly later date. Because a heart that lets in even a little bit of judging is like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice* creating a little bit of help. It’s the help that’s ultimately so not helpful, you need to call in the big guns to help clear it out.

That’s a breakthrough I had today, courtesy of my good friend, Patty, and my secret obsession, Yehuda Berg’s Daily Kabbalah Minute, or whatever the hell they call it. (I’m jokey-judging because I’m embarrassed, which is the shame thing from the title kicking in, which I’m getting to in a minute. Be patient. This stuff is H-A-R-D, okay?) I did a little public judging, all in the name of a good cause, of course! of course!, which Patty saved me from, which made the shame bloom up my back over my shoulders and to my ears. Heat. Lots of heat. I copped to it, but in kind of a cold, uppity way. You know, the whole “not by way of excuse, just by way of explanation, tone-lost-via-the-internet, iciness-born-of-lack-of-context kinda way. And then that goddamn Yehuda Berg dropped this bomb in my inbox, and dammit if I didn’t laugh and, after my even milder prickle of shame had subsided, email Patty copping to my status as Temporary Asshole of the Universe.

Lesson learned; move on, nothing to see here.

Well, wait, maybe there are a few things to note first.

  1. Daily, or at least regular, maintenance is important. This learning is, as anyone on the path knows, hard-won and easily lost. I’m still new at this “being able to stop it thing,” and it is coinciding with what might, at almost-48, be called critical mass in terms of lessons, but some kind of regular practice of reflection has got to be a help…right? I think it’s no coincidence that some of this fine understanding coincides (ha!) with my doing a semi-regular practice of Remembrance.
  2. Emotions are awesome, if annoying, indicators. Shame, fear, guilt, whaddevah! There’s no getting around it. Crappy stuff lets you know you’re off-plumb in some way. If the judging is the thing, the shame I feel getting called out on it is like semaphore by oiled, buff, Mr. Olympia contestants wearing sequined hot pants and neon nipple rings. In other words, hard to look at and even harder to look away from.
  3. Be nice! It’s becoming my cure-all for everything, or at least, the balm I apply to these newly-opened wounds. Works, though, and is available in infinite supply, believe it or not.

I will likely grapple with this issue on and off for the rest of my life. Somehow, it’s the hand I drew, one of the things in my basket, just like Crohn’s, on the downside (or not) and my scary-fast healing powers and capacity for withstanding pain on the upside (again, or not).

The more I remember that 1-2-3 above though, the shorter the lag time between the hammer coming down and recognition that I have, once again, been bonked on the head.

And who knows? Give me another 40-some-odd years and I may be able to step around the sucker entirely…


Image by the learnr via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*Again with the Joseph Campbell!


  1. I know from having children that from age 0-10 or so children explore and create an authentic self. Round about 10 or 12 or so, they begin to put together the constructed self. This self usually compensates for what the authentic self didn’t get them. The problem is, of course, that the constructed self is only 10, and therefore gets a lot of things wrong that the 40 year old has to fix. Often with sledgehammers. Sometimes a screwdriver will do.

  2. Oh man, if we could just make a living judging ourselves, though, it would be incredibly boring, I could really clean up. ‘Loved your comment about “hard-won and easily lost” – those glimpses of clarity, exuberance and joy sometimes seem a figment of my imagination. Like that one great golf stroke, I know it exists. The saving grace is that little voice that whispers at the most dark times – “I know we used to have … a sense of humour!” and the laughter begins.

    Here’s to a good snorting guffaw to growing wiser and happier!

  3. I heart you! I love when I can sit here (at work..shhh) with a smile reading your uplifting/funny stories!

    “the me I was at 10—playful, curious, reasonably carefree, openly loving”… the You of 10 sounds like You of the present.

    And hey, for nearing 50…you’re da bomb baby! ;)

  4. I love this post. When I actually own up to some of my own shame (silently inside my head of course) it shifts ever so slightly from repulsive to absurd. At some point after age 10, I stopped asking for things if I wasn’t positive the answer would be yes. Lately I’ve been *trying* to risk asking again, and it still feels all naked, but somehow I’m doing it anyway. This post reminded me of all that, so thank you.

  5. The problem is, of course, that the constructed self is only 10, and therefore gets a lot of things wrong that the 40 year old has to fix.

    That is IT. Well done, LPC. And so much shorter.

    Anne – We could probably also clean up if we got jobs judging other people. We’d also get our asses kicked, so it’d probably be a wash.

    Angie – Aw, thanks. I am at my best. Gotta spend a little more quality time with the screwdriver, per LPC’s remark.

    Briana – I have a similar phenomenon, only there’s still a lot of shame before the absurd part kicks in. Like I (hope I) said, it’s a process, like anything else.

    Asking is such a good practice! Because you can do it in lots of small ways when you’re not feeling up to the big ways, yet it all works the same muscle. Thanks for your lovely comment, and good luck with your asking.

  6. “…the job of youth is learning, the job of maturity is unlearning while preserving the learning.”

    Amen. Great post.

  7. TREMENDOUS post, Ms Wainwright. Your writing is always sharp, vulnerable, clear, clever and F U N N Y. I follow about 20 blogs daily and yours is my favourite. I often feel inspired not only by the topic, but certainly by your beautiful way with words. BRAVA!

  8. My mother and I have this joke-y thing we do on the phone after one of us had made a particularly bitchy remark about someone else…we wait a beat and then add…”if I were to judge.” Shame? You’re describing my second skin. And that sh*t hurts like f*ck when I try to peel it off. Amazing how much we’ll cling to stuff no matter how sh*tty it makes us feel. Great post.

  9. As a fellow Virgo, this only rings too true. When the strength of keen discernment mutates into nitpicky self-sabotage followed by its misshapen spawn of self-loathing, well – it’s a party isn’t it? Wasn’t thinking about this one in terms of Mark’s “upper limit symptoms” but it totally is one. Particularly insidious when you are also “blessed” with good communication skills in which case you make yourself sound downright reasonable. Thanks for the post, Colleen!

    Since I am Asian, I’ll end on a “Confucius say…”

    “At 15 I set my heart on learning; at 30 I firmly took my stand; at 40 I had no delusions; at 50 I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60 my ear was attuned; at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of right.”

    According to this, you’re only *slightly* behind schedule :)

  10. Thank you, all! I’m delighted it resonated, and equally delighted not to be alone in my misery.

    And Jason, which milestone am I just behind—year 30 or year 40? (And if you say “15,” I will come over and smack you when I’m finally in PDX.)

  11. Well, apparently I’m approaching the age of ear attunement, and darned if that doesn’t seem right! The way I look at it, it’s all a big spiral and you keep coming ’round and ’round again to the same life lessons. Only, if you’re making progress, you come ’round at a higher altitude/perspective. You can see how much you’ve grown since the last time you had to deal with it. It’s not a bad system, really! :-)

  12. There’s no way for me to answer that question without losing. Though I must say, threatening your readers with physical violence is probably some kind of blogging no-no. In any case, trade you a smack for a beer when you get to PDX?

  13. I read ‘Nonviolent Communication’ not too long ago, the title alone of which caused judginess to rise for me. Basically it’s a method of compassionate communication designed to reduce violence and conflict.

    I’m not entirely on board with it, but it has made me much more aware of judgments in my language/thinking, whether positive or negative. Comes up so naturally it’s a bit sickening at times; cue self-reproach.

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