Perhaps it was the time we screamed at our kids, or belittled them in an effort to curb misbehavior. Maybe we snubbed a friend instead of pursuing a difficult conversation. Cheated on our taxes. Took something that wasn’t ours. Manipulated a situation to get our way. We all have these kinds of regrettable moments in our pasts — for some of us the list of transgressions seems woefully long. How can we look ahead with confidence and self-esteem when such poor choices and behavior lurk in our backgrounds?
Releasing the Worst
Researcher and clinician Brene Brown writes, “We cannot be defined by our worst deeds.” At first reading, my cognitive mind embraces that statement, ‘Well, sure, everyone makes mistakes. We are all human and deserve forgiveness.” But then my knee-jerk emotional self is quick to add “at least, everyone else does.” So quickly and unconsciously, we hold ourselves to a different standard than we do others. In the face of someone else’s moral failing or atrocious behavior, we may be willing to offer compassion for their flawed humanness, or at least to rationalize that they had some reason for their actions. But most of us are just as quick to not only judge ourselves more harshly for bad behavior, but also to roast ourselves over the mental spit of reliving these shameful moments over and over. As if grinding these cringe-worthy moments into our memory banks will somehow motivate us to better decisions in the future, shaming ourselves for our failures does the opposite of urge us to do and be better: it defeats and demoralizes us into believing our brokenness will forever keep us from being the “good” and “honorable” people we long to be. In therapy, I see proportionally more clients who berate themselves for long-ago misdeeds, rather than minimizing their wrongdoings. In general, I think most people internalize the voice of a faceless, harsh authority figure, one set on reminding us of every misstep we have ever made, even if it erases every shred of self-love we have managed to stockpile over the years. I’ve yet to see shaming effectively urge people to access their best selves. Similar to the way unconditional love helps young children to feel safe and confident stepping out into the larger world, our own positive self-regard is the path to behaving, choosing and speaking in ways that enhance our lives and others. We must let go of the negative loops of memories that condemn us for our failings. Instead, we can train ourselves to cast the spotlight on our moments of bravery, compassion, kindness and altruism. We can choose love — even for our selves.