“We have to bear our own toxicity. Only by facing our own shadows can we eventually become more light. Yes, you are kind. But you’re also cruel. You are thoughtful. But you’re also selfish. You are both light and shadow. I want authenticity. I want real. I claim both my light and my shadow.” ~Kerry Mangis
Many of us can recall the painful moments that have shaped us. As we grow older, we become intimately aware of all the ways we were hurt, wronged, or betrayed. I think it’s a natural impulse, to number these moments and process them in order to heal.
I reflected on this when on my way to the California River Delta—a peaceful marsh-land setting located between the Bay Area and Sacramento that I often sought refuge in.
The night before I’d watched an episode of Thirteen Reasons Why that had dealt with the theme of the contradictory elements that live inside each of us. How difficult it is to arrive at a clean summary of good or bad once you’re made privy to all a person has been through, every feeling they’ve experienced or thought that’s run through their mind.
My own list of hurts floats in and out of my mind, activating more on some days than on others. When I’m doing well emotionally, it largely fades to the background. When stress is higher and sleep has failed to restore me, it’s likelier to make an appearance.
Here’s a little glimpse into how it reads:
It started for you at the age of five, when you learned that the girl you’d considered your best friend wasn’t as attached to you as you were to her.
In sixth grade your core group told you, seemingly out of the blue one day, that you could no longer sit with them. You didn’t know why. You only knew that for whatever reason, people you’d trusted didn’t want you around anymore. Traits and mannerisms you hadn’t previously questioned were suddenly suspect now, and subject to intense self-scrutiny.
The way you talked. Your interests. The sound of your voice. You just didn’t know. It could have been any of these. Or maybe all of them.
Regardless of what that thing was, the message that resonated loudest of all was “Not good enough. Not worth keeping around.”
A year later, self-esteem beaten down, you forged a friendship with a girl who showered you with positive attention one day and shoved you so hard you’d bleed (“jokingly” though) the next. This girl told you that you were selfish in order to get you to pay for things and comply to her wants.
She rolled her eyes and called you “Dr. Phil” when you told her this hurt your feelings. Whenever you spoke up for yourself, it would lead to a fight. You’d sense this was toxic, years before learning what that word even means, but you’d also blame yourself, thinking maybe this was just what you deserved, or was the best you could do. Especially when there was no one else to turn to.
Years later, dating hurt your heart too many times to count. You let down your guard and began to trust, only to realize you made a choice that wasn’t smart. Rinse and repeat.
Your feelings were dismissed more times than you can count—sometimes because you were too afraid to be upfront about them; other times, even when you were. You felt like the carpet had been pulled out from under you, over and over and over again like a sinister movie on repeat.
I realized that day, as I drove to the California River Delta, that this narrative I’d carried for years wasn’t altogether wrong. Acknowledging those moments is an act of self-compassion. Once we validate what we went through, we can then begin to heal it.
It was just that this narrative was incomplete. What I had yet to incorporate into my story was the harm that I too had left in my wake—and the way both of these, input and output, fed each other in a repeating cycle.
And so, as I looked out at the blue-grey water after parking my car, my brain began expanding its narrative.
You carried those childhood scars with you. They slept, only to activate. When they did, you saw from your vantage point and yours only, blinded to others’.
You said hurtful things when at your breaking point, lashing out at friends and the people you dated. Consumed by your own issues, you sometimes failed to fully be there or show up for others in their time of need.
You attached yourself to people and relationships, putting unconscious pressure and expectations onto them without their consent.
You stayed with women you claimed had let you down, hoping they’d change, or trying to change them. You refused to accept the present moment on its own terms, instead insisting on seeing it for how you wanted it to be.
Small acts of inconsideration built over the years, even when you weren’t blatantly mistreating someone or behaving in an overtly harmful way.
My mind had briefly ventured to these uncomfortable places before—but that day, with only itself and the bucolic scenery to contend with, it stayed there for longer than its customary five or ten minutes.
As I looked out at the water, I considered what attitudes, beliefs, and cognitive-road blocks often stop us from going here.
How might we learn to move through (rather than away from) thoughts or memories of our mistakes when they surface? I wondered. Because taking accountability benefits not just the harmed person, but our own souls too.
I was able to see that shame is a big contributor. Brené Brown has said that when held back by this all-encompassing emotion, we cease to grow. So long as we remain stuck in its slog, we’re ironically more likely to repeat the very mistakes that pulled us down there to begin with.
The character Bojack Horseman (from the Netflix show)—who hurts his friends, strings a good woman along, and even commits sexual assault—is one example of a person (er, horse) undoubtedly stuck in this cycle. He doesn’t see how his own conception of himself as irrevocably damaged largely contributes to the continuation of his harmful behaviors. If you’re just bad and there’s nothing you can do about it, then harming others is inevitable—so why even try to change?
And so Bojack keeps drinking. He keeps hurting people. He keeps making the same mistakes. He himself continues to suffer. By shrouding himself in the shame robe, he self-protects—both from the hard work of change and from the extreme discomfort of examining the insecurities that underly his destructive actions.
Those with trauma in our pasts develop coping mechanisms in response to what happened to us, often many years before fully understanding and contextualizing our pain. These defenses resulted in some level of collateral damage on the people around us.
Some of us thought there was just something wrong with us. Or that these behaviors stemmed from character flaws we’d have to learn how to hide. We didn’t recognize them as signs pointing us toward what needed to be healed.
Nor did we understand that rather than stay stuck in guilt and shame, we could allow it to guide us. That, when a fork in the road presented itself, we could let the sting of remembering direct us onto the kinder path.
Black-and-white thinking also keeps us away from full acknowledgement of the past. We may think that if we’ve done bad things, it must mean we’re bad people. But it’s entirely within our control to learn from our past actions and become better every day.
It took some wonderful people years of fumbling missteps to arrive at who they are today. If we were all judged solely by the single worst thing we’d done, many of us would be on our own right now.
Sometimes we don’t acknowledge the past because it doesn’t line up with our image of ourselves as good people. Even though merely envisioning oneself as a loyal person or good friend doesn’t guarantee we’ll never act in ways that are hurtful.
Owning up to our role in past events doesn’t mean we’re forgoing self-compassion. I’ve found I can hold myself accountable and learn healthier replacements for destructive defenses while also maintaining compassion for what my younger self went through, and the struggles she didn’t yet understand.
I wasn’t taught emotional regulation back when I was in school. Nor how to process my experiences. It’s hard to practice what you haven’t been taught. I remind myself, though, that I now have the tools to teach myself. That I can be that person to heal the hurting younger self who still lives somewhere inside me.
Rather than allow the shame swamp of my past to ensnare me, I can seek to understand the unmet needs and unprocessed pain that prompted my negative behavior.
We can extract the debris that led to insensitive actions until eventually we come upon that better and kinder self. The one who exists inside all of us.
In my own journey, confronting regret hasn’t come without pain—but it has motivated change. Reminders compel me to be better now, to the people in my life currently. They also compel me to be a much better friend to myself.
I’ve realized that acknowledging what was done to me is just one side of the coin when it comes to full healing and self-actualization. The other side is self-awareness and honesty. Looking not just at what’s most convenient, but also at our impact on others.
That day on the dock, I gathered a few stones—each representing a person I’d harmed in some way. I held each one in my hands. I wished each person well and imagined filling them with a protective circle of love.
And then I sent each stone on its way. Watched it fly through the air and land in the water with a small and almost imperceptible splash.
Each of us is capable of so much better than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Yet much of how we strip those mistakes of their long-lasting power is by owning up to them—while at the same time, forgiving ourselves.
About Eleni Stephanides
A freelance writer and Spanish interpreter, Eleni was raised and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, LGBTQ Nation Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert, Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium.