Stop punishing yourself.

So, yeah. I had to stop fasting around 2:30pm on Ash Wednesday. The thing is, I have to be careful. I am already prone to melancholy. I tread a delicate balance between dark and light. I’m very aware of my shortcomings, sinfulness and mistakes. I can easily slip into despair. I punish myself.

I started remembering all my old sins, perceived sins, sins I confessed years ago, mistakes, failures, sins from decades ago, the sins of my family, the sins of the world and then? I pretty much felt like throwing myself over the edge of a cliff.

I slumped down and started crying.

A thought came to me: Stop punishing yourself.

This is a new thought for me. See, punishing myself comes easily. It’s actually more challenging for me to let myself be loved. I don’t know how to receive love.

I wiped my tears and was all: God? Are you talking to me?

And then I broke my fast, ate something and felt a little better. Then I took a hot bath. Then I rested. Here’s another thing: I don’t know how to rest. I don’t know how to NOT be busy. I dread silence and emptiness. I somehow think my worth is tied up in produce, produce, produce, check off that list!

My mom used to tell this story about me as a little girl: when I did something wrong, I couldn’t wait for her to give me a spanking so I gave myself one. And then when she got home I ran straight out to the car and before she could even enter the house I was confessing all my sins and asking her to spank me properly.

This story was supposed to prove how honest I was and that my conscience was sensitive. I don’t know if I accept that conclusion anymore. I mean, I remember that incident, too, and the only lingering impression I have is: fear. I remember being the little girl who freaked out over every single little mistake. I remember being a child terribly afraid of making one mistake. I remember being so worried about my sins that I charted them on little diagrams. I made lists of my sins. And I punished myself.

I asked for spankings.

What would be really revolutionary for me is to stop punishing myself. What would be really challenging for me this Lent would be to engage in self-care, to get enough rest, slow down a bit, stop thinking mean, nasty, critical thoughts about myself.

Perhaps, for me, a true Lenten season would be to rest in God’s care, to let God love me, to be gentle with myself.

I’ve fasted and prayed and wept over my sins. I’ve hated myself and cut myself and spanked myself and obsessively charted all my sins. I’ve done All The Things.

What would be far more radical is for me to simply rest. And allow myself to be loved.

Actually, that would be the most difficult thing of all.

  • priest’s wife

    did you ‘break’ the rules you made for yourself? because the letter of law (with exceptions for age, illness, etc) is no meat- with one full meal and other foods in the day adding up to one meal…but I hear you with the rest of your post!

  • Jennifer

    “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” How many burdens do we place on ourselves, that Jesus never would?

  • Jennifer Lundberg

    ahhh grace. what a sweet, sweet gift we need to take in. So grateful that you shared this piece with us.

  • a reader

    This really hits me where I live. This is my first Lent as a Catholic, and I’ve spent days thinking about what to give up, about what I need to remove from my life to help me live more close to God. This morning while praying what came to me was this: why don’t you give up self-loathing? That seperates you from Me more than anything else. Hours later, I’m still reeling over the implication that the thing I need to give up the most is the harsh treatment of my own self. May it be a transforming lent for us both.

  • Emily Floyd

    I am in RCIA right now and for Lent I am getting up before my children to have prayer/reading time and time to just BE. I love sleep and my kids get up really early, so it’s a sacrifice in a way. I love that we can ADD to our lives for Lent instead of just taking away. For some of us, it’s what we need most.

  • Dorothy

    You are so right – and God is so good! His love for us is beyond our imagining and we constantly limit it. for those of us who grew up with endles condemnation the challenge to allow ourselves to be love just as we are is the supreme challenge. Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me and that thou bidst me come to thee – o lamb of God I come.

  • Alison Williams

    This reminded me of a story my father told at my 21st celebration about constantly thinking of other people… to the point that at 6 years of age and deathly ill I apologised to him for making things difficult. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that wasn’t really a great thing to be proud of. To this day I struggle between caring for others and neglecting myself.
    Thank you SO much for the encouragement!

  • Susan

    I am with you EE. This is the first year I haven’t gone to church for the imposition of the ashes, and I have no Lenten agenda. Those of us who have been spiritually abused and otherwise trodden under foot most need healing and resting in Jesus. To force one’s self to subject ourselves to anything close to our legalistic past can easily send us screaming and running out of the room. Listen to your heart-as you seem to be doing, and doing well.

  • Maureen

    This is reinforcing the feeling I had in Chapel Tuesday night…a place I rarely am but I was covering my husband’s hour of adoration. I was thinking about how hard it is to believe I am truly loved and the tears were flowing. Thanks

  • Kelly

    For lent this year, I am giving up trying to control and manage the pain of loneliness in my life. I am single now, for essentially the first time in my adult life, and during the past 2 years of journeying towards being single – a fancy way of saying, surviving the divorce – I have been trying to avoid, adjust, manage and control the pain of the deep loneliness that sometimes comes over me. God is asking me to relax into the pain, to allow it to be, to trust Him, that He has a purpose for me, and for this pain, and to let Him use it to create in my a clean heart, a heart that longs for Him more deeply, a heart that rests in Him more fully, and a heart that is more compassionate, softer, more gentle, and more malleable in the Potter’s hands. It hurts…seriously. One day at a time, right?

    God has already begun the work – last week, I told a friend, “Last year, on Valentine’s Day, I was all, like, I’m going to use the day to show my love to EVERYONE!” And I did. But, then I said, this year, I’m like, “To h*ll w/it all!!!” Which, you’d think God would be all, whoa, whoa, whoa, language and attitude, girl! But instead, He has filled the last week with so many expressions of love from people around me, unexpected gifts, kind words, appreciation, and just sheer love. I feel so loved. :)

    As are you, Elizabeth. Thanks so much for your honesty and vulnerability in your posts. You rock. :)

  • sonja

    This is good stuff. For some of us forgiving ourselves is harder than anything else. I once talked to my priest about this during confession and he reminded me to carry these heavy burdens (like balls and chains on my ankles) up to the cross for communion and just leave them there. So now I try to wrap them up while I wait, set them down while I receive and not look back while I pray. It has helped, but I still feel their weight.

    • Verity3

      Could you try setting them down again, right now? He’s always there for us :)

    • Tara S

      Someday. :-) Burdens are wounds, it takes time for the damage to lift.

  • Sarah R (to have love)

    thank you for this. i can completely relate. i too have difficulty really believing God’s love for me.

  • Angel

    I attended my first catholic mass last night for ash wed with my exchange daughter that is from Bolivia. It was all in Spanish but so beautiful that it didn’t matter that I could only understand the word “God” and “heart”. I thought of your family and your husband as I sat and prayed in the service. Prayers that this Lent season will bring you freedom and a closer relationship between you and Christ and between you and your husband. Love your honesty in this post.

  • Jake Meador

    I like the way you put that at the end about the actual need for you this Lenten season is learning to rest. Doug Wilson has a video where he says that for a foodie, the proper Lenten fast may not be giving up meat or coffee or something like that, but eating Wonder Bread for 40 days.

    Point being, Lent is how Christians learn to die with Christ. But no one has the same needs in terms of dying with Christ and so what is helpful for one person may not be helpful for another. I think it’s still OK to have generally prescribed practices because there are a lot of people who might be helped by not eating meat or something similar, but it’s good to encourage a flexibility about this and recognize that what helps one person die to themselves may actually do great violence to another person’s spiritual life.

  • even one sparrow

    ” I don’t know how to rest. I don’t know how to NOT be busy.”

    Um. YES. That is me. I’ve had to take a month of rest before my next baby arrives and I realized: I have NEVER rested before. Not really! I’ve thought I have been, but it’s been all masked productivity.

    Rest is saving my life. I wrote about it here:

    I hope you can embrace rest in its fullness, and experience God through it. It is absolutely transformative.

  • Catherine Denton

    Oh beautiful, beautiful thoughts. How precious and tender.

  • Dianna Kennedy

    As I was lamenting the disastrous Ash Wednesday Mass, after I left/stomped out with 4 children in tow, my sweet pal Lisa Schmidt reminded me that Lent shows our weaknesses. She reminded me of the quote from St Teresa of Avila …. “begin again, begin again.” Mother Teresa reminds us that “God doesn’t call us to be successful, but faithful.”

    Be gentle on yourself, my friend. You are a light and a blessing to many.

  • Dani Kelley

    Ahhh. Thank you for this. I’ve been punishing myself a lot, too (unrelated to Lent, however). It’s so hard to accept love, let alone love yourself.

  • Tara S

    I’m giving up social anxiety for Lent! The reticence and second-guessing and motive-blaming and over-all anxious fear that keeps me from being as outwardly caring as I would otherwise want to be. :-D