When You’ve Painted Yourself Into a Corner…

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There’s a time-worn idiom in the English language that I’ve always loved (English Lit. undergrad, I love all forms of word-play). This idiom is a verbal visual of someone painting a floor (I guess that was common, back in the day of rough-hewn floors) ‘blindly’, not realizing that his back’s against a wall: no way to leave the scene without stepping on wet paint and ruining the floor.

“Painting oneself into a corner” means, You did this to yourself; a blind move; a stupid move. The kind of move we all make in our lives – some of us many times over. The actual mistake can be harsh words that can’t be taken back; it can be bluff and nonsense about our skills; it’s very often a lie told that is sure to be discovered as a lie. Finding yourself in a corner, with no way to back-out unnoticed (without paint on your shoes and having to re-do the floor) is embarrassing on many levels:  it’s feeling exposed and foolish. For a minute, it’s hard to know just what to do. Then, the urge to get out of that corner becomes critical and there’s just no choice. You’re going to leave a mess, and be stuck with paint on the soles of your shoes.

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As human beings, we all say and do things that are ignorant, or that reveal our “tunnel vision” toward a situation. Our ego gets in the way and the resulting ‘corner’ we find ourselves in escapes our attention until it’s too late. Then, we  immediately feel the absurdity and humiliation of our predicament. (Anyone who’s ever embellished their resumé and then been asked about a particular aspect of it during an interview has lived through this idiom.) It’s clear to everyone watching or participating what’s happened. It’s usually pretty clear, also, what needs to happen next. But this is what’s so very hard for most of us (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s totally easy-peasy denial).

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Acknowledging that the predicament we’re in is of our own making, and reconciling this within ourselves is awkward. Even though making mistakes and ‘owning’ them is part of Life’s process of learning and growing, self-forgiveness — especially with a harsh Inner Critic –requires reflection and peace-making. But that’s only Part I. Part II is the way in which the person or people we’ve hurt or deceived react.

I had the opportunity today to watch and listen to someone – an older family member – realize he’d ‘painted himself into a corner’ — with snarky words aimed at a much younger relative who in no way deserved them. Within a matter of moments it was clear to me that – at his mature age (almost 70 years old) – the older man was still nurturing an ancient wound ; a grudge, to be exact; and had no way to explain (or back out from a painted-in corner with any dignity) his misplaced anger.

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What needed to happen right then?  “I’m sorry” would have been really good — perhaps even preventing the need for any further explanation. And what was the response from the other ‘side’? Sadly, but wonderfully, even though an apology never came, the recipient of the nasty words responded with grace by not acknowledging the misplaced anger. The younger man left the older man in his ‘corner’. Like a few people I’ve known in my life, I’m guessing he’ll stay in that corner until the garish red paint he splashed all over the floor with his words dries completely, and he can slink away. Even when Grace is extended, sometimes people don’t recognize it, or don’t feel they deserve it.

The Truth is, we all deserve Grace. We can wait, and hope it comes somehow, or, we can summon the courage in ourselves to ask for it.

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