I have buried two shameful secrets for most of my life. Today I’m coming clean.
Which is not easy for a recovering perfectionist.
The first involved the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. When I was in 6th grade I made it to the district level and breezed through the written portion of the contest. I got through a round or two of the spotlight spelling, but fell later on the easy-peasy word gauze. Shame filled me. How could I have failed so spectacularly? I was certain that everyone in the room was laughing at the stupid idiot girl who messed up on a one-syllable word.
My parents arrived shortly after my crash-and-burn (they must have had a scheduling conflict for they rarely missed any of our activities) and I was relieved that they had not witnessed my fall. I was more than relieved — I was opportunistic. I thumbed through the Scripps-Howard booklet of words and chose the most difficult one I could find.
I told my parents not that gauze was my downfall, but that psilophyton was. It made my shame more bearable to create the illusion that a more difficult word had knocked me out of the competition.
The second took place a few years later when I turned 16 and set out to get my drivers license. Of course, I aced the written test. All that stood between me and new-found freedom was the actual driving portion of the test. My dad had spent hours teaching me in our family car, and I’d gotten an A in Drivers Ed (they used to offer it in our high school). So I wasn’t worried.
When the time came, though, I bombed the test. I failed to yield to oncoming traffic when turning left. I’m lucky I didn’t cause an accident.
My shame was of epic proportion. I could not tell my parents the truth. Instead, I told them that the instructor must have had it in for me. I just could not face them or myself. I practically convinced myself that my story was true.
Only it wasn’t.
Looking back, and being a parent now, my mom and dad probably knew the truth of both situations (I have never brought it up again, but I suppose this post will open up a conversation!). And of course they loved me anyway, in spite of the failures and the lies about the failures.
I didn’t really get off scot-free. Easing the burden in those moments had the counter-effect of weighing on my conscience all these years.
But instead of now feeling more shame for the young lady who failed, I offer to her compassion for living in fear and forgiveness for hiding her shame with lies.
Why am I bringing these minor-in-the-scheme-of-things up now? Because I’m excavating.
By virtue of burying these episodes for decades, they gained much more power than they merited. Small potatoes, truly. But through the deepness and the darkness, two small kernels of shame became supercharged.
It’s time to neutralize by shining light.
Often, in the light, the things we are most embarrassed by or even ashamed of suddenly seem not so dark, so charged, so burdensome. If we are fortunate, we are able to look at the thing with compassionate eyes and forgive our previous selves for the transgression. We know that most of the time we do the best we can with what we have.
And I think this notion has implications way beyond any spelling bee or drivers test.