“I’m normally really precise. I did every step in the experiment exactly as it was supposed to go, every microliter measured…except, I did it in exactly the reverse order. It was a mistake that no one had ever seen before!”
”Oh, f*ck me! I just printed one thousand beautiful event postcards…with the wrong date on them.”
”Wow, these screen-printed notebooks look great! Let’s move them to the drying rack” – an improvised series of dowels & pvc laying across shelves – “to get a pic for instagram!” CRASH!
That last one was me, last week. We were able to dust off a few of the notebooks enough to make them presentable. But there was a moment when that crashing of the notebooks to the floor felt like the biggest failure. The voices started in the back of my head. Oh, what did you expect? You’re screenprinting in your girlfriend’s basement, how cliché can you get? Of course you’re going to mess it up…
Luckily, I have been writing a personal development blog for a few years now, talking about doing things like developing compassion and practicing self-care…so I was able to let the brief disappointment and fear of failure wash over and through me, and forgave myself for the mishap, laughed with my girlfriend about it (she saw the whole thing), and resolved to get better drying racks for the future.
Well. Sort of. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I went through the motions internally of forgiving myself, because I knew rationally that was what made sense, and going through the actions of laughing and figuring out how to make it not happen again allowed me to reframe the stupid – whups, that’s value judgement – the inefficient results of the experience.
But that’s not what gets the clicks for personal development bloggers, so we might as well go for some clickbait:
Three Easy Steps to Forgive Yourself
- Remember that you cannot predict what’s going to happen. Life is literally just one thing after another, and there is always a lot more going on around us than we actually know about. That’s why we can do things – we have an ability to focus on them, and filter out other things. That means that we are going to be surprised when the unexpected happens. If you need to, read the [list of inaccurate predictions] that Fast Company printed back in 2010, and imagine how much longer the list would be today.
- Imagine you saw someone’s kid do the same thing. This seems weird, but it’s kind of a shortcut to compassion. We have a hard time being compassionate with ourselves, and even sometimes with our own kids, but we tend to want to see other people treat their kids with compassion. So as your inner critic is ramping up the stream of vitriol, switch the scene to how you would expect a good parent to react to their kid making the same mistake. Hey! Now we know what happens when we do the experiment backwards! I never expected to learn that today – thanks! It’s also worth remembering how many great inventions were accidents. (I don’t actually trust that list, because it doesn’t include sticky notes, but whatever).
- Make a plan for what to do next. Sometimes that might be a fix for the problem; sometimes it may be changing things so as to reduce the chance of the mistake happening again; sometimes it’s just moving on to something else, because there’s no going back. Whatever it is, make it a concrete action that you can do. Move on, in time (not that you’ll have a choice in that) and if possible in place. Go somewhere else to figure out what to do next. Changing the environment will help your brain get out of re-living the mistake along with all the associated emotions.
Don’t Feel Ashamed. Feel Guilty
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort… I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to shame as tool for change. – Brené Brown
The key difference is that “shame” is a concept that is fundamentally connected to core identity, whereas “guilt” is instead connected to an action (which is why anyone who is “guilty” has to be “guilty of” something, whereas we usually frame the other as something like “you should be ashamed of yourself”).
Guilt is associated with responsibility. With acknowledging your contribution to what happens, and the efforts to contribute to what happens afterwards. It can be constructive, and it leaves room for moving beyond the mistake.
Try it out, this weekend. At some point there’s going to some shake-my-head facepalm moment, and when that happens, see if you can channel some compassion into your emotions.
It’s only three steps. And in case you’re wondering, it works just as well if you do them backwards, too.
One of the common mistakes that I used to make about practice was that I kept waiting for everything to be perfect. “Time to sketch!” I’d say, and then putz about with sharpening pencils, adjusting the light, setting up the pose, changing the height of the chair, finding a zillion little details that needed to be just so before I could do the practice.
Some of that, of course, was procrastination. Some of it, however, was justified: I was creating a little bubble of reality in which all the factors that I felt would let me be my best practicing self were in place.
Nothing wrong with that! The problem comes when that is looked at as a necessity, rather than a luxury.
Plans Make the Gods Laugh
The fact is that reality rarely allows for us to control all the variables around our practice. ”Time for bed!” you say, and begin to shut down the computer screens and change into comfortable clothes and begin a quiet reflective journal session over tea…
”Mom! I don’t feel good!I” comes the voice from up the stairs. Or the phone beeps from your private number, because the office needs a different report tomorrow. Or your lover comes in and says “We need to talk”. Or your stomach gurgles, prelude to informing you that you’re really going to regret that Tuquelenas Torta you had for dinner…
The point is that if we let that dissuade us from our practice – or worse, let those realities tell us the story that we’re bad because we weren’t able to do the practice perfectly – then it is the literal manifestation of “the perfect is the enemy of the good”
Persistence Makes Practice
Instead of beating ourselves up about a missed practice, there are a few things you can do to let these unforeseen circumstances support, rather than hinder, your practice.
- Don’t Play the Blame Game. Certainly don’t blame yourself, but also don’t blame your kid, your boss, your lover, your stomach. Even – or especially– if it’s their fault. It is what it is, and any time spent stewing in a blame soup is energy wasted when you could have been doing something like…
- Mind Practice. Ok, I made that word up, but it’s based on fact: athletes who spend time visualizing doing well in a race tend to do better at racing. This applies to just about anything. If you imagine, as vividly as you can, the practice you would have been doing, it helps reinforce the neural pathways that you’ve been trying to create. Whether that’s a vivid meditation deep in the night as you’re cuddling a sick child, or just a random thought as you try to print a spreadsheet, having your practice in your mind helps keep it current.
- Let This One Go. Not that you’d want to make it a habit, but sometimes it’s good to practice another skill: the skill of releasing yourself from an expectation. Of simply saying “I didn’t get to do it this time. I will try to do it next time.” And then you can devote yourself mindfully to whatever it is that has taken the place of your practice for this particular round.
The biggest thing is to remember that you’re playing the long game. Statistical trends look like cliffs when you close in on them, but when you look at the big picture, you can see a smooth and graceful curve. If you miss a day of practice, remember that it’s a blip – and if you keep your focus on the arc of your life, you can choose what direction that curve takes.
A friend of mine who is a shining example of someone who Does the Work to reflect on and improve his life recently mentioned struggling with “shame spirals”.
The term was coined by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who described it as
“A triggering event occurs. … a person is suddenly enmeshed in shame, the eyes turn inward and the experience becomes totally internal, … The shame feelings flow in a circle, endlessly triggering each other … causing the sense of shame to deepen … until finally the self is engulfed.”
In other (wikipedic) words, it’s “ an internalized, self-reinforcing sequence of shame events”. I like to think of it like this: when you wander into the forest of your own brain, sometimes you find lovely, surprising things, or strange wonderful friends…and sometimes you get stuck in the mud. In fact, you can get to the point where you know about shame spirals and you shame yourself for being in them.
Luckily, there’s a superhero who can save the day.
Brené Brown to the Rescue
Everybody’s favorite empathy researcher and writer has a lot to say on the subject, often in frustratingly short snippets of video. However, she does identify the characteristics of people with “shame resilience” – that is, the ability to feel shame and move on from it. I’m not sure I like using the word shame there, myself – I’ve always considered shame to be a situation where you feel inferior for who you are rather than simply feeling regret for something you did.
But I’m not a world-famous shame researcher, so I’m going to go with her ideas.
The first thing is to recognize that shame needs three things to thrive and draw you into the spiral: Secrecy, Silence, and Judgement. If you can counter these things – basically cut off the life-support system for the shame spiral – you can develop your own shame resilience.
On a clip with Oprah, she outlined three things you can do right away to help combat a shame spiral:
- Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love when they’re feeling unworthy Maybe that’s in your head, maybe you need a mirror, maybe you need to put on your webcam and cel phone and pretend you’re self-skyping. But whatever it is, you probably know how you would try to cheer someone else up. Why not do it to yourself?
- Reach out to someone you trust. This fights that “secrecy” problem, as well as getting out of the “judgement” idea. Pro tip: let that person know what you need from them, and that is likely not a “solution.” Instead, just finding someone you know likes you (”for who you are, not what you do”) and seeing how the shame spiral stands up to their unconditional love and support. (I predict: not for long).
- Tell your story. Brené says “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Here’s where you get rid of the silence. It’s related to the fact that shame spirals, like most circular logic, don’t really survive being put out in the open and examined.
Shame can hit you from any direction, at any time, especially as you practice being more vulnerable and open to loved ones. the hardest one to learn to love is yourself, after all. At the same time, it’s as necessary as “put on your own air mask before assisting others” – you can love others and be self-shaming, but it’s not easy.
The Banzai Strategy
Take this part with a big chunk of salt, because I might be completely wrong. My own strategy for getting out of shame spirals has very little to do with what Brené Brown recommends (but that’s not saying she’s wrong).
See, I just ignore it. I throw myself into some project or workout or experience that doesn’t give me time to focus on all the things that are Wrong With Me. It can’t be something that only takes part of my attention, like a tv show or surfing the web; it needs to be an engrossing book, or a challenging performance, or a craft that requires care and focus.
There are probably neurochemical processes involved in why this works, but what I find is that when I’m done with the “banzai” project (that is, yelling banzai! and throwing myself into it) (and no, that’s not cultural appropriation; look up the origin of the term yourself) that shame spiral is pretty much a memory. Maybe it’s also because I’ve just done something that required my full attention, and that is something to be proud of.
Regardless, consider that a fourth strategy in case the first three don’t work. But do take action when you find yourself in those self-critical quicksand moments!
After all, it’d be a shame if you didn’t.
The Most Worthless Emotion
No regrets. – Robert A. Heinlein
I remember reading those two words as an impressionable early teen, and wondering at them. The teen years are full of regret, after all – Why did I wear these jeans? I wish I’d asked her to the dance! Why didn’t I study for this test?!? It took a very long time to realize that the words relate more to shame – regret is the way you choose to shame yourself, after all.
There’s no way to change what you did or what happened – it’s in the past. Unalterable. Sure, you can try to forget it, you can reframe the memories, you can try to make up for whatever mishaps occurred – but those aren’t part of regret. Those are actions. Regret is simply an emotion, an unpleasant one, where you feel bad about things over which you have absolutely no control.
Where’s the use of that?
At least some people would say that the efficacy of regret is to motivate you to not make the same mistake again. A sort of unpleasant positive reinforcement, adding a level of shame to your present reality based on the subjective memory and selective interpretation of past events. Of course, subjective memory is notoriously unreliable, and anyone who has ever watched a courtroom drama knows how you can choose to interpret facts all sorts of ways. I’m talking life-changing, major moments in life here – if you’re not triggered by stories of child abuse, take a read of this powerful essay on The Things Men Aren’t Supposed to Talk About by Jason Smith. For those who would rather not, here’s part of his conversation with his AA sponsor, talking about past trauma that Smith is having difficulty letting go of:
“What is your part?” he asked me, point blank.
I just looked at him. Silently. The question seemed ridiculous.
“My part? I was a little kid. I had no part.”
“You’re right,” he stated. “What happened was f*cked up and it wasn’t your fault. But I’m not asking you what was your part. I’m asking you what is your part. Your part in holding onto this resentment. Not your FAULT. Your PART.”
While they’re talking about child abuse, the statement applies to any case of regret. You can’t change what happened before. So what is your part in hanging on to these negative feelings that make you feel ashamed of yourself? Why would you do that to yourself?
Compassion for the Self
The answer is that guilt is easy. It’s an instinctive reaction conditioned into most of us through a society that loves to shame people of all ages for being too young, having too much fun, being too cautious, take your pick: the fear of regret is a prime mover for any advertising group. It’s much, much harder to try to understand the contributions of yourself and others to whatever happened. The contributions are there; nothing happens in a vacuum, and it’s all interconnected. It would be nice if you could trace everything back to one seminal moment, a single origin (or perhaps “original sin”) that caused whatever it is that you regret. It’s simpler, a neat solution, a place to heave all that negative emotion onto in a big box called “blame.”
Problem is, life isn’t like that. Life is complex, beautifully so, but it takes work to actually look into the finer details and get the perspective. Heck, it’s difficult to accept that there are different perspectives, and the idea that your perspective then might be different than your perspective now? That you’re trying to be an armchair quarterback, second-guessing the agent in the field, being a backseat driver for your own life?
That’s some higher-level thinking. That’s some difficult processes. I can recommend two steps to try and start the journey, though. Not because I’m terribly good at them, mind you – I’ve just managed it a time or two, and it’s helped me lose a couple of bundles of regret that I used to carry around.
Love who you were. This shouldn’t be too long. Just let yourself go back in memory, looking at that person you were when you did that thing you regret. You know them better than anyone. You know why they did what they did. You know what motivated them, what values they had, what weaknesses, and what strength. You don’t have to like the characteristics, necessarily. But that person – that individual – they are worthy of your compassion and affection. Hold them in your imagination, and let them have the gift of You know what? You’re pretty ok.
Learn from what happened. It’s absolutely true that we should learn from mistakes – what’s wrong is the idea that shame or regret are effective tools for learning. For example, one study indicated that prisoners who felt ashamed of their crime were more likely to repeat it than those who felt guilty. It’s a subtle difference, but a powerful one, and it has to do with personal responsibility. Regret tries to shame the person you were, as opposed to accepting the contributions that person made along with everything else. The next step, though, is to look at what happened with an objective eye. What can we do better? Some things may be obvious: I could study for the next test. Others may not work out so well; you overcome your shyness, ask that person out on a date, and discover that the two of you make each other absolutely miserable. But you can take time to learn something from any situation.
That’s it. I’m pretty convinced that if you apply love and learning to a situation, you no longer regret it. Instead you’ll understand it. You’ll see how it has added to your power, to your abilities, to your experience. It doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically get better. Life is not a three-act play; the world doesn’t end with the curtain coming down. What you can do, though, is try to make the next chapter even more enjoyable than the last one.
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who came home with a hickey on her neck?”
Recently I’ve been exploring Quora, a site where people can ask questions of the general public to see the answers. The question above was put out there, and I was astonished – and disgusted – by the number of suggestions that used shame as a parenting technique. I composed my own answer, and realized (as I wrote it) that it’s an important part of my core belief about how you care for those you love.
Oh my lord! A hickey! Obviously you have failed completely as a parent. In fact, we should call child services immediately and see if there is anything we can do about the decade and a half of neglect and mistreatment to which you’ve subjected your poor daughter. Please tell me you don’t have any other children who might have been abused in this way? I seriously don’t understand why the government, school system, heck, our entire culture would ever let someone as cruel, neglectful, and exploitative as you procreate at all, much less raise children. And god, what must the neighbors think of you? You LET YOUR DAUGHTER GET A HICKEY!
Enough sarcasm. I hope you get the point: that kind of hyperbolic shame doesn’t work very well, does it? I raised 4 daughters into adulthood, and I have some experience in these kinds of situations. I will tell you the one thing I had to learn the hard way so you don’t have to:
Stop mistaking “influence” for “control“
You have lots of the former. You can be someone who helps her feel comfortable, confident, and strong in a culture that is constantly trying to make her feel anything but those things. She’ll see hypersexualized ads while simultaneously seeing idiots like some of these other commenters talk about “slut” and “shame” and “embarrassment.” Bob Dole doing the Pepsi commercial with Britney Spears was probably the low point, but there’s many, many other examples.
But “control”? Buddy, the most oppressive and controlling cultures in the world still have illicit sex. The states that rely the most on shame and ignorance to “control” their teens have the highest rates of teen mothers. When it comes to Biology vs. Your Comfort Level, you’re gonna be outmatched.
The only thing that scare tactics and shame and embarrassment will do is encourage her to hide things like the hickey from you. It will make sure that when there’s something more serious than a hickey, she knows she can’t come to you, because you’ll embarrass her or (worse) hate her or think she’s worthless.
If that’s what you want, then sure, follow those suggestions about embarrassing her, shaming her, making her uncomfortable that other commenters here have suggested.
But don’t fool yourself.
Recognize that you’re not actually concerned with raising a daughter who is informed and secure in her sexuality and resilient to the culture of shame and sexual hypocrisy that is Western civilization. No, you’re actually concerned with your comfort level. You just don’t want to see the evidence that your daughter is, in fact, human. I get that. It’s hard watching them grow up. I cried when my twins first walked into their kindergarten.
And hey, if you choose that route of “If I don’t see it, I won’t have to worry about it”, you’ll probably succeed. You won’t see it. But if you think she’s not going to be human, with human sexual urges that occur when biology, not society, dictates – you’re fooling yourself.
On the other hand, you could just ignore the hickey. I’m sure she noticed it. You don’t have to point it out. Maybe you could just continue to treat her with love and support like (I hope) you do any other day. If the subject of her “love bite” comes up, you could say something as simple as “Well, looks like you had fun,” and leave it at that. You could also take it as an opportunity to reiterate safer sex practices, or even go a step further and remember that sex is supposed to feel good.
Maybe ask her: “How do you feel about that?” And listen. Instead of telling her how she should feel, or projecting the judgement of others (as if you could read their minds) onto her, how about you just listen to what she has to say about it.
If she is upset, again, try some support: “Are ignorant people giving you a hard time? You know they are dumb, right? And probably envious.” And again, listen. Kids aren’t dumb. If she doesn’t want the kind of attention that the hickey gives her, she will take steps on her own to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you lay down some kind of draconian “You’ll never leave the house again!” it’s basically like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Trust me; this I learned from hard experience.
You could even try and remember that you, too, were once in puberty. “Wow, I remember when I gave my girlfriend a hickey in high school. I felt terrible that people gave her a hard time. It was weird that my friends congratulated me like I’d done something cool-that really didn’t seem fair. We just made sure the hickeys never showed after that.”
That’s influence. That’s keeping her aware that this is an external event and the external consequences are real and something that can be talked about, but that it doesn’t change who she is or your love and support for her.
It’s your choice – it’s every parent’s choice. We all do the best we can. But I spend a good deal of my professional life trying to help adults get over the shame and hurt that their parents instilled in them when they were first becoming sexually aware.
It would be nice if we could start doing better.