The Moldy Fridge of Shame
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with the details of daily life. The other day, I was tired and behind in nearly everything. It was time to make dinner. I opened the fridge to get a key ingredient, but it wasn’t there. I searched and searched again, frantically clearing out all the shelves. It still wasn’t there. What I did find instead was what my family calls “biology experiments.” And there was an abundance of them—white mold on the leftovers, black rot on the leeks, even pink mold on the hummus.
I sighed, angrily berating myself as I started to clean the fridge. Intense waves of shame and disgust hit me. My mother’s voice suddenly emerged from the cobwebs of early childhood. Even though she is 99 and frail and I’ve had years of therapy and meditation, it was remarkably loud and clear. I was a “slob.” My messy room was “disgusting.” How could I live like this? What was wrong with me? I immediately went down the rabbit hole of feeling hijacked by the ancient, disparaging voice of my mother.
However, I’ve been attending a class called Daily Dharma in Life taught by Narayan Liebenson at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. Our assignment for that day was to not criticize ourselves. I remembered the homework. The disparaging litany stopped. I didn’t need to replay those painful re-runs of my mother yelling at me. It wasn’t going to make things better. In fact, it was making things worse. One of my mentors, Dr. Janina Fisher, has a saying that has been a lifesaver for me and that I often share with clients: “if it’s not happening now, it’s not happening.”
What can you do if you get walloped by an attack of shame? Seized by the talons of a poisonous inner critic? When you’ve had a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” as the classic children’s book puts it? These are my favorite tweaks:
When you’re having a hard time is when you need kindness the most, but often it is most difficult to access. We all screw up and get overwhelmed, but we aren’t alone in our imperfections. Self-compassion researchers like Dr. Kristin Neff call it “common humanity”
I remember a question after a dharma talk where a woman berated herself for being “bad.” The teacher, who had grown up in Vietnam, asked her, “So how bad are you? Did you destroy any villages today? Did you kill, rape, plunder, or maim anyone?” She looked shocked and shook her head. “You aren’t that bad. Carrying a negative self-concept doesn’t help anyone.”
Take a Deeper Dive
Once you have come back to yourself and are on steady ground, get curious about the words you use to criticize yourself. The yoga teacher Ana Forrest knows the ways trauma and abuse live in the body. “What do you say to yourself that slays you? What is the darkest thing you tell yourself?” she would ask us as we held the postures. If it is hard to look at this alone, feel free to share with a coach, a therapist, or a trusted friend. Negative words can haunt us. The research is that they remain in our bodies: “our issues are in our tissues.” But we can release them by befriending them. If this is the case for you, try seeing these angry voices in a different light. The Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls them “beautiful monsters.” We all have them, he tells us. The invitation is to “shake hands” with them instead of running away or denying. Every feeling is worth getting to know.
A Cognitive Reframe
Finally, try what psychologists call a “cognitive reframe.” Is there another way to think about what happened? Once I’d eaten dinner and cleaned up the assorted biology experiments, I remembered that penicillin, a powerful antibiotic, is derived from mold. And it isn’t inherently bad or shameful; in fact, it is lifesaving.
When I shared the story with a friend in my class, he recalled a line from Louise Erdrich’s poem Advice to Myself: “Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life.”
May we all appreciate our unique and at times messy lives, including the imperfections.
Dr. Susan Pollak is the author of Self-Compassion for Parents and the co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School.