I am a Big Bear

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J1 E9 ~ Punitive Guilt: As a woman in my 50s, I have been battling with this inner and ongoing dissonance. From a young age, I was taught (by almost all aspects of my environment) what is considered “proper” as far as appropriate feminine behavior-what is acceptable and what is shameful. For example, the women in my family instilled that, “You need to act and dress a certain way, or no man will want you. And if no man wants you, how will you live a good life?” The only way my family would pay for college is if I went to a school to meet a man with very high earning potential. I became enraged at the idea and did not agree to their terms (I am proud of the fact that I finally made it into an undergrad program of my choice, at the age of 24; and I met my husband at a Halloween party in a bar 😉

Although I fought for my education, I internalized that my self-worth was based on how men viewed me. Intellectually, I now know that this is so very wrong and so harmful. This protestant-based, cultural belief system kept me, for a very longtime, as an object for others to judge. 

From this lifelong shaming internalization, I became a chronic dieter, semi self-loather, and a chronic self-judger-specifically about my appearance and politeness. 

When I began to make a shift to stand up for my core being, myself-worth, I started to set boundaries with what I am okay with and what I am not okay with. Then the external cultural structure began to push back on my new inner confidence. You are selfish, opinionated, too strong for a female, unlikeable, a bitch (you can add more here). 

As a woman, have you ever noticed that when you are practicing self-care, all of a sudden, others are quickly attaching labels to you? Unfortunately, I expect labels to come from men as a fear-based response to messing with their patriarchal society; but what really kills me is when harmful and judgmental labels come from other [oppressed] women. Again, a fear-based response often materializing as gossip, shaming, and shunning. As Ruiz states in his book, The Four Agreements, the labels are not about me, but comes from the inner prison in which the judgers live. Again, easy to intellectualize Ruiz’s concepts of how people are not accepting of others uniqueness and special gifts, but very difficult to apply (read his book. It is very good).

So, what gets in the way of letting go of this lifelong internalization? What prevents me (and you) from being completely okay with who I am, just the way I am, while still being a work in progress? Guilt!! The more I feel guilty (and fearful) about being okay with my boundaries and self-care, the angrier I get. Over the years, I have learned that my anger is a secondary emotion that covers up my internalized guilt and shame; in other words, what I am doing is bad (guilt), or others will think I am a bad person (shame). 

Very recently, I decided to take a deeper dive into my internal cognitive dissonance. I have been working deliberately and mindfully on my self-punitive guilt, experiencing the physical aspect of guilt, and then trying to get rid of these debilitating emotions. What is helping me the most to overcome this suppressive guilt which I create, is switching from “I am a bad person” to “this is not my fucking guilt! I wasn’t born feeling this way. I was programmed this way. My guilt is not me!”

Saying this helps, but it is not enough to get to the deep, unyielding, and necessary self-deprogramming.

What really helps me now, is when I imagined I am a bear. A really big bear! Bears do not feel guilty for behaving like a bear. If you piss off a bear, the bear will take you down. A bear has set boundaries with what they are okay with and what they are not okay with, “mess with my cubs and you are done.” There is no debate, no shame, and especially no guilt. Bears have boundaries that you cannot cross. After a bear attacks you for being stupid and trying to get a close up, they don’t go to their friends, family, and therapist and say, “Oh no! I ate this human. I know he was being an arrogant ass, but I feel so guilty. How do I live with myself? I am a sinner. I should know better and be a nice and understanding bear. What will people think?” Bears do not internalize guilt, shame, and unworthiness. They are clear with their boundaries. I now channel my inner bear!

I am now clear with my boundaries (don’t treat me poorly or I will no longer be part of your life) but I feel bad about maintaining them (guilt). When I set this hard boundary, people on the receiving end always push back with criticism, labels, gossip, attacks on my character, and blaming me for how their life has turned out, “my unhappiness all started when you…” fill in the blank. They use what I call manipulative guilt against me. I am proud to say that I no longer internalize these fear-based attacks.

By using the bear analogy, I use the authentic power it gives me (as my BFF would say, “your inner animal spirit”) to not base my self-worth and values on other people’s opinions. When I am the bear, I am giving myself permission to be totally okay with my choices and not let the external world penetrate my soul, my core being, my humanity. Find your inner strength, have integrity, care about humanity, and tend to your own internal and fear-based problems.

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Published by Cleveland Emotional Health LLC Network of Private Practices

Catherine is a licensed mental health counselor located in Geneseo NY and the author of the mental health series Philosophical Processing Journals 1-5. Check out her author page on Amazon. See links below.

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