Our own worst critics – reconciling past ‘shame’

I have several scars on my left arm from self-harm in the 1990s. I have spent the past twenty years hiding them, worried that people will judge me or worse still ask probing questions. I have always felt ashamed of my scars. I am currently staying in a residential program for people with mental illness. There is a tattoo shop nearby which has good reviews. Up until very recently I planned to get my scars covered with a tattoo. This seemed a good approach to addressing the shame and judgement issue, but the other day one of my fellow residents made me change my thinking. I told her about my plans and she immediately exclaimed ‘don’t be ashamed of who you are. Be proud of yourself. Your scars are part of what makes you you’ I figure she had a very good point and decided not to cover my scars but to  cherish them.

This raises an issue many people have around shame at past decisions. We all make choices we are not proud of and I imagine everyone has something in their history that they are not happy about. It seems easier to hide these things and keep them from those we love and care about but actually they are part of what make us who we are.

Along with my scars I have a personal history which can be viewed as quite shameful. I spent three and a half years as a prisoner in the 1990s. After I started to live a more respectable and positive life I was highly secretive about my then very recent past. As a university student I invented whole years of personal history to avoid mentioning I had been in prison. Being a very honest person I ended up telling my university colleagues about my past not long afterwards and it was a big relief. In fact nobody really cared. If anything they thought it was interesting which just goes to show that the thing you think is shameful and mortifying may be viewed a lot more sympathetically by others. You might be highly anxious about something in your history and worry that others will find out but in fact they may be more understanding and kind about it than you imagine. We tend to be our own worst critics.

And what happens when someone actually does judge you for things in your history that you struggle with? Well to my mind that is the other person’s problem and it is their loss to miss out on your company and friendship. While being on the receiving end of judgement is horrible, it says a lot more about the other person than it does about you.   

It has taken me a lot of years to get to a point where I am comfortable with the more problematic bits of my personal history. Reconciling my present self with who I used to be has been a journey and not always a very easy one but it is a journey I am glad I made.

Yesterday I went to the shops wearing short sleeved shirt with my scars exposed and it felt really good. I have tried to do this a few times and struggled but I think I will now be able to show off the parts of myself which I feared would result in judgement from others because I am happy to own those parts of myself – physical and intangible. I am not ashamed and I no longer hate and blame myself for things I did a generation ago. There were real reasons for my self harm as a young person and I now realise that time in my life deserves understanding and kindness rather than blame from me. The worse judgement I have experienced in relation to my scars has come from myself not others and I need to let that go.

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