How to Be a Better Human

Someone older and supposedly wiser once told me a long time ago that guilt was a useless emotion. I remember feeling very defensive about this. I didn’t want to accept it. I very much wanted this person to feel guilty for all the horrible things they had done to me. That would mean at least they recognized how they had wronged me and who knows, maybe they’d even apologize or make amends in some small way. But no, to this person, guilt was a wasted emotion.

Don’t tell that to Brene Brown, a leading authority on shame and the constellation of emotions surrounding it. In her latest book, Rising Strong, Brown affirms the intuition of my younger self: guilt can be a powerful way to figure out wrong turns, take the steps necessary to correct them, do better the next time. Guilt teaches us to have more empathy and compassion, to be more forgiving and more loving. Calling it a waste is the real mistake.

Brown makes a careful distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling horrible about something you did, shame is feeling horrible about who you are. In a way, when that person told me guilt was a useless emotion, it made me feel ashamed. Who was I to think guilt was a good thing? Who was I to go around feeling guilty and hoping those who had done cruel things to me felt guilt too? What kind of horrible human being was I, anyway? Was I really so stupid as to think that guilt had a place in my life? That it was in some way a good thing? That is how shame gets you. It makes you question your own intelligence and integrity. It twists logic.

There is nothing to be gained from shame, which is the irrational fear that there is something intrinsically wrong in me. Something unfixable. When I drag shame out into the daylight, admit my feelings and unpeel the layers by writing about it, I come to Brown’s conclusion: I am not perfect, I am only human, and I need to forgive myself, let go of shame and get on with things. Shame, not guilt, is the useless emotion.

Once I have let go of shame and absorbed the lessons of guilt, I can use them to grow more fully into what Brown calls wholeheartedness (which to me is pretty much the point of life, to become whole, to be at peace, to accept imperfection and to love myself and others with my whole heart). I can draw more secure boundaries, adjust and affirm my ideas about how to live with integrity, and move on.

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Except what I’ve noticed is that even after I do the work, regret never goes away. I will always regret the harsh words I’ve said, the wrong actions I’ve taken, the times I have hurt someone I love. Regret is a tough thing to live with. Regret is a result of guilt. It’s a burden and it’s something I struggle with. I wondered for a long time if I’d always have regrets or if by some miracle I could cure them, the way you cure shame by bringing it out into the light and looking at it.

As it turns out, I was doing the same thing with regret that other person was doing with guilt, considering it useless, wanting to banish it. Not so fast, says Brown. Regret is as useful as guilt and in similar ways. It  can help uncover shame, because for a lot of people, myself included, when I feel shame I do whatever I can to bury it quick.

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But if I write about my regret and look at why I have this huge block of it, I find boundary issues I had not handled well, problems with trust that ensued from that, feeling foolish for missing huge red flags that tried to warm me disaster was just ahead, and so much more. And the value of that? Shame banished. Also, knowing regret has a higher purpose lets me live more lightly with it. Just like guilt, learning to work with regret lightens its load. It is a way to become a better human.

Worth It

brene.brown.imagesBrene Brown spent her life researching shame, never suspecting until one crystalline moment that under her need to excel was a perfectionism that kept her mired in guilt, judgment and blame. It took her awhile to assimilate her years of research with her newfound self-awareness and the result has been TED talks, new books, and television interviews about her discoveries. Here she is with Oprah!

I have NEVER been a perfectionist. I have always known I am far from perfect. But this too has caused me endless shame, blame, and guilt. Because our culture likes perfect. That’s why we airbrush photos of movie stars.

Blame

What a day I had yesterday. It was almost too much. What saved me, I think, is it started out really well, with a good class and an end date in sight:) I love teaching and I love when the semester ends. So I was feeling pretty good around noonish. Then I turned on my phone. My dentist had cancelled again and the temporary crowns he’d put in my mouth weeks ago were beginning to bother me. Also, I’m going on vacation next week and I wanted my permanent crowns in place before I left. Of course, this was my fault for not understanding the message from a receptionist who had given me some instructions about picking up some shade match at a lab on the way to the dentist’s office. Turns out I was supposed to go to the lab and have the shade matched BEFORE they made my crowns. I blamed myself. What an idiot.

Guilt

Next I came home and turned on the computer to a disturbing message from the B&B (a hundred year old urban farm five minutes’ walk from the kids and soon-to-be grandson). They had double-booked my reservation and I had no place to stay next week! Of course it didn’t matter that I booked first or that I wanted to stay in this place or that it was so convenient to me. They’d already sent a confirmation to the other party and that was that. I would not be arriving at my perfect vacation destination after all. If only I’d been more attuned to my email, I would have noticed that they never sent me a confirmation. If only I was better at following up, I would have caught that way back last winter when I booked my dream B&B. But no, the woman with a million projects just figured everything would work out, when there is no reason to ever think anything will work out without double and triple checking, something I never do because I live my life so carelessly, always hoping things will magically “work out.” That’s where magical thinking will get you. Outside the door of the B&B you were counting on.

Shame

Scrolling through my email, I found a note from a new editor. MY new editor. For Luke’s #1 Rule, a book I expected would be released right now. I opened the email and read the short note from the person who is my THIRD editor on this project. I’ve only ever had one editor before with this publisher, who I have pubbed two novels with. And yet here was Luke, my best effort, the book of my heart, the novel that took me from labels like “chick lit” and “paranormal” and “romance” author to “contemporary author” stalling and stalling again. Why? The first editor kept it awhile and gave me some general comments, most of them negative. I was relieved (although a little hurt, suspecting that editor #1 hated Luke so much she refused to work on it) when a new editor was assigned. That’s when the waiting began. And continued. And continued. I did get a set of good edits from editor #2 but long after I’d turned them in, I still heard nothing.

Then the note yesterday. What could have gone wrong? Editor #2 had seemed to love Luke. Why then a third editor? I recognized my shame triggers: not good enough, who do I think I am to write a big contemporary story that encompasses everything from divorce, child custody, blending families, love, meddling mothers, and addiction? Who was I to think I could pull something like that off? It was much too complex for a writer with the limited skills I possessed. Shame, shame, shame. I managed to reply and thank this third editor, who I assumed was a new hire they’d foisted me off on.

Turn Around

But they hadn’t foisted me off, I saw as I scrolled down to a lovely and thoughtful message from editor #2 explaining that her admin duties were keeping her from getting Luke out in a timely manner and so she had brought one of their powerhouse editors, a long-time tested and true editor, to usher Luke into the world. Shame zapped.

The owners of the B&B were so apologetic, taking full responsibility, and offering to find me accommodations next week in the same neighborhood and a free stay at their urban farm another time. They came through with a beautiful place. Guilt gone.

As for the dentist, the receptionist tried to book me in for next Tuesday. Next Tuesday is my last day of work. I will be grading research papers and watching research presentations. I will be calculating and filing my final grades with the college. I will be packing (we leave Wednesday!) but I need my crowns so I said okay. Because I always say okay. The receptionist said “if that’s convenient for you” and I said “it isn’t, actually.” Then I asked if she had my new crowns in the office. Yes, they had them. It’s just the dentist had to reschedule. “Well do you have anything THIS week?” “Let’s see.” She actually giggled. “I didn’t think of that. Oh yes, can you come tomorrow at 2:30?”

Yes, I can, right after my pedicure. So there was the day, a full cycle of guilt, blame, and shame heaped upon my own head but then also handled. I am not perfect, and I have never aspired to be. I’m imperfectly human, and shit happens to everybody. But because I am worth love, respect, and kindness, especially from myself, I knew what to do to turn things around. Thanks Brene Brown. You are awesome.