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.

060

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.

105

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.

Sex and the Shadow

hawaii3Shadows are where danger lurks. Shame is in the shadow of every single life. And sex includes shame for so many of us. Makes sense, then, that one of my problems as a writer has always been with sex. Open the door or keep it closed?

Those who throw the door wide and step right through would argue that sex is the primal urge in life and drives most of our actions most of our lives. Why not just admit it and stir sex into the mix?

Those who would rather not say hey there are other basic human bodily functions we don’t feel the need to write about so why should sex be any different?

I used to be firmly in the “keep the door shut” camp until I signed a contract that called for a consummation scene and my editor called me on it when I didn’t write one. I think now that part of my issue with writing sex was shame. I’ve got some of that, but then I think most people do, especially women, especially women who have had men take advantage of them sexually. We carry our scars and some of us think it might be our fault it happened. We bury all that and we certainly don’t want to stir it up by writing about it.

hawaii2

But sex is why we are all here. Literally. We would not be walking this gorgeous earth, not one of us, if somebody didn’t have sex with somebody else, and yes, that would be our biological parents. Also sex is beautiful between loving couples (or whatever combination you are into). Orgasm is the closest we will ever get to completely letting go of our thinking mind and entering into a state of bliss on earth. So why the shame? Why the secrecy? Why the guilt heaped upon me by wrinkled noses, poked out tongues, and suggestions that I give out page numbers for sex scenes so they can be skipped over?

And that’s just my family. Also, yes someone did stick their tongue out at me when they saw the cover of my latest book and the inevitable question arose (ahem) and I answered that yes, this book had sex in it. It’s about a single mom. She falls in love with the man of her dreams. She’s not a virgin. She has two little humans walking around that are part of her deal and central to her identity who prove that. So, you know, sex is an important component of the love relationship. Sexual attraction is what, if you’re lucky, leads to love.

A rational single man, I have heard, will not want to marry a single mom. No way. Kids are baggage. The actual kind you can see and must feed and care for along with this woman. But sex is not rational and neither is love. Also, they go with one another. I can’t be “in love” with someone and not want to have sex with them. They go together like cookies and milk. So yeah, my novel is sorta The Brady Bunch meets Sex and the City. And I’m coming out of my shadow to say I like it like that. It’s supposed to be that way. That is the way the story goes.

hawaii1

There’s more to love than sex. Of course there is. I once had an emotional affair. You know, that thing where you’re just friends and then one day there’s more? But you can’t have sex because the divorce isn’t final yet or the spouse just doesn’t understand? Only your “friend” who you now love beyond reason understands. There’s no sex there. Not yet. But if the emotional affair continues, there will be sex. And in my case, there was no sex, but only because we both knew the timing was wrong. We stayed friends, too, but it was difficult at first. Because emotion almost took me under. Sex is a healthy release of that emotion we call love, which is why it deserves to walk out of the shadow and onto the page.

I have admitted before that, for me, writing is therapeutic. I can say now that writing sex scenes helped me face my shadow and the shame I formerly, wrongly, sadly, associated with the most awesome act on earth.

Surrender to the Words

Shame. Dammit. There it is again. I feel it burning in my chest. Surrender, don’t suppress. Sure enough it dissipates, even sooner than I’d thought possible. I’ve been surrendering to my uncomfortable and negative feelings for months now, simply sitting with the pain as it moves through me. When I first began doing this as a regular practice, it took much longer, sometimes an entire thirty minute meditation session.

I remember when meditation used to be for relaxing deeply into nothingness. Surrendering to the empty everything. So relaxing not to have to think about feelings. Or feel them. I was suppressing, or that’s my guess. You can suppress or repress and repress is automatic, you really can’t control it, it just happens to save you from pain. Suppressing negative emotions also saves you from pain — in the short run. But let me tell you, it comes back. Especially if you are going through a particularly bad patch in life.

Everyone has those. No shame there. No shame in trying to fix them, either. My shame goes a little bit deeper than that … it’s #ShareBlogSunday on Twitter and as I sipped a coffee and caught up with my favorite bloggers, I came upon Sharon’s post about choosing a word for the year. Hers for 2014 was “release” and that’s another way of letting go. Surrender to the feeling, allow yourself to feel it, if it hurts. Don’t suppress it, which is always my first inclination, but now I just surrender, feel the pain, and release happens by itself. Surrender is the first part of release.

I started thinking about a word for myself for this year. It’s gonna be peace. I need me some. Surrendering to the painful parts of life “the full catastrophe” as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, is now a habit with me. It feels good to let it out and let it go. I tend to stick with things that feel good, like meditation  and yoga and drinking wine and writing. I know surrendering will bring peace. It already has, a tiny bit.

But there’s that shame. It’s old, and it’s been shoved so far down it is crammed and compacted and now that it’s coming up it just expands and expands. There’s always more. I might be releasing, um I mean surrendering, this crap for the rest of my life. That’s okay. That way I die clean. Shameless no matter what.

I’ll tell you what brought on the latest round of shame … I’m reading a new self-help book and I wrote a too-long Facebook comment on it that was supposed to be funny. A commenter chastised me for it, advising me to stop reading that self-help crap. I was having fun reading the book and cracking myself up about how much self-help I’ve done though the years, I just laughed and laughed, until this comment made me feel bad about myself. Listen, I like to laugh at myself. I think of the self as the human condition in that we are all in it together and we all have felt these emotions and its absurd and wonderful and just a laugh to look back on our particular peculiarities.

But that comment, meant kindly I’m sure, made me feel all alone in my strangeness. It wasn’t so funny anymore. Shame, shame, shame. Except …  the commenter misunderstood.

I wouldn’t change anything. I’d still read every one of those books and have incorporated many of the habits of mind such material has given me. I’m better for it. I like myself better. I’m more at ease in the world, and that ain’t been easy. So anyway, that was the particular shame thing, not anybody’s fault, just my own stuff coming up from lord knows where. A blog post I read this morning by my friend Laura Zera had another clue for me.

Laura wrote about making a soundtrack of your life. Like in songs. She wrote hers down. It was fascinating. Some good tunes on there! I love music. And I thought about making my own soundtrack, just like I thought about finding a word for 2015. What can I say? I like trying things. So I thought back to the first song I really loved. The song I played over and over on my first record player when I was a little girl. It was Elvis and it was “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” I was five years old and I thought someday he’d marry me and we’d never be lonesome again.

I actually felt a pang when I was thirteen and he married Prisilla. I felt betrayed for a minute. I know it was stupid, and I quickly suppressed that feeling. “You’re such an ass” I told myself. Then, and this is years later, I cried the day he died. I don’t cry easily and especially about celebrities who I once adored but currently made me cringe. I felt embarrassed about that, too. My husband was simply baffled. I bought the switchplate snapped above a few years later. It’s been through many moves with me. And then today I thought about that song and I realized it is the soundtrack of my life. All by itself. One song.

Elvis does some spoken word on that song. He says “You know someone once said the world’s a stage” and that someone is of course Shakespeare who I went on to study extensively and to teach for many years. My favorite play As You Like It includes that “All the World’s A Stage” speech. I never made the connection before today. Do I love Shakespeare because he’s Elvis’s “someone who once said…”?

And the whole “lonesome” thing. If my life had a word “lonesome” would be it. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams is the only country song in the world I adore, because country is not my thing, but that one speaks to me so clearly. Williams knew lonesome. Don’t we all?

I’m not alone in this lonesome thing. Plenty of people have told me, or written, that they too feel isolated, alone, distanced, detached … one of the most famous Buddhist sayings is “we are born alone and we die alone” and nobody can argue with that. Being alone, being unknowable, is the basic fact of humanity. We all feel it. Or we suppress it. I think I’ve suppressed it. A lot. Because everybody longs for connection, even if they don’t know it. It’s in our nature.

We want connection, we miss it over and over, we are lonesome. Or alone. Because they are different. Lonesome is the shameful, sad side of alone. Alone and okay with it is fine, maybe even enlightened. People like me, who seek to constantly improve their happiness quota as quickly and painlessly as possible, will do things like fall in love, get married, go on dates, have many friends, all in order to stave off lonesome.

I’ve been “in love” a million times, playing out that same scenario Elvis speaks: “Act One was when we met/You read your lines so cleverly and never missed a cue/Then came Act Two/You seemed to change/You acted strange/And why I’ll never know./Honey, you lied when you said you loved me/Though I had no cause to doubt you/But I’d rather go on hearing your lies/Than to go on living without you./Now the stage is bare/And I’m standing there/With emptiness all around/And if you won’t come back to me/Then they can bring the curtain down.”

Elvis was still speaking, that whole part. I have not played that song in over fifty years, but I remember every word. Then he sings “Is your heart filled with pain? Shall I come back again? Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?” And that’s the end of the song. Except for those brief “Act One” in-love moments, my answer has always been YES I AM. I’m lonesome.

Even married. Even with a boyfriend. Even in a room full of people who love me. I feel so alone and not happy about that. I feel so lonesome around people I hate parties. I have to go home and be alone just to feel better about being so lonesome. It’s fucked up, yeah? Shame. Come on, you know you want to hit me again. But shame is not here right now. Neither is lonesome. Peace is here. And oh how I welcome it. Now I just gotta make a new soundtrack.

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.