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What’s Bugging You?

A Shame-Free Examen Practice

Woman writing in journal

Getty Images/Ponomariova_Maria

“Creating this simple practice has been a great help to me. As I lean into it, I see where I am hooked into negative thought patterns about myself or others and recognize what I need to let go of. I also see what brings me joy.”

“Notice when you are bugged.” That statement stopped me short as I was reading Gem and Alan Fadling’s book What Does Your Soul Love?. The things that bug me can form a low hum in my brain throughout a day. They can spoil—or threaten to spoil—the other lovely moments of the day.

I took that statement and made it into a question. Then I decided to make it a part of a daily practice. I would think about the past day and write down the answer to just two questions:

  • What’s bugging you?
  • What’s bringing you joy?

Creating that simple practice has been a great help to me. As I lean into it, I see where I am hooked into negative thought patterns about myself or others and recognize what I need to let go of. I also see what brings me joy. And each day brings a new opportunity to lean into that as well. The more I understand about what’s bugging me and free myself of that, the more I am able to embrace opportunities for joy. It’s part of what I am learning about being kind to myself.

Shame-Free Examen

I have long struggled with the traditional understanding of how to practice examen, a pattern of prayer that comes from Saint Ignatius, the sixteenth-century mystic and founder of the Jesuits. The basic idea is to take a bit of time in the evening to sit and mentally review the day—play it through like a movie. As you do so, notice where you felt close to God (moments of consolation), and notice where you felt far from God (moments of desolation). To me, this practice always felt like another way to feel bad about myself—a way to review and recall all of my sin for the day. While I know it’s good to remember my sin so that I can confess it to God, the review would throw me into a place of shame. Further, doing it at night reminded me of all the things I could be worrying over just as I was trying to go to sleep. For me, it was not a good combination.

Using these two simple daily review questions took the edge off the pain and made the practice more accessible to me. A further tweak for me was to review the previous day in the morning. I was already in a morning routine of spiritual reading and journaling, so it fit right in. I spend a few moments thinking about the day that has passed. Then I write in my journal the answers to the two questions numbered with a 1 and a 2.

For a season I had a thirty-day booklet in which I wrote down the answers to my two questions. Each day I pasted in an image clipped out of magazine pages to represent one or both of my responses. (I keep a little stash of evocative magazine images—more about this can be found in the description of collage practice, chapter seven.) This gave me something tactile to do as I mused on the day and allowed me to focus more deeply. Finding the images drew out different aspects of what I was feeling.

Practice: A Daily Record

Tackling the examen from the approach of what’s bugging me and what’s making me happy keeps me out of the sinkhole of shame. The things that bug me are—of course—not completely outside myself. The truth is that things that bug me the most are often the personal encounters that go wrong. Or they may be things that are causing me worry or anxiety, running a never-ending mental loop. My part in it is my own response—whether simply internal or expressed.

These questions have made me more aware of the things I hold on to each day. The things that pull me down. The things that keep me from noticing that God is near and is constantly drawing me in.

Adapted from Be Kind To Yourself by Cindy Bunch. Copyright 2020 by Cynthia Bunch. Published by InterVarsity Press.


Sponsored by: InterVarsity Press

Located in Westmont, Illinois, InterVarsity Press has been publishing thoughtful Christian books for more than 70 years. An extension of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, IVP is a leading Christian publisher with a respected history providing resources that strengthen the church, encourage individuals, and shape the academy.


By Cynthia Bunch. Click here for more!

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