I’ve been thinking about guilt and shame. Two states of mind that can really rack us up. Especially if we’re not clear on what they are. Especially if we’re not clear on what their purpose is.
I read that guilt is when we do something we shouldn’t. Or don’t do something we should. It’s not right, or fair, or kind. It doesn’t fit our idea of who we are, or who we want to be.
Guilt, in a good context, is an alarm, an “intruder alert”, that our lizard brain is running the show.
Shame, on the other hand, is feeling there is something wrong with ourselves. It’s the feeling that we are a bad person, not worthy of anything good. We don’t deserve forgiveness, success, respect or love.
Shame has no good context. It is truly destructive, because we feel incapable of making better choices.
I’m not going there with shame today. Too big!
But I’ve learned a big lesson about guilt.
I injured my back awhile back. In desperation, I sought out all kinds of alternative therapies, including the services of a local chiropractor, Frank Abbate.
Frank and I talked as he worked. He’s a martial artist so we often talked about principles and personal integrity. One memorable discussion centered on excuses.
One of his pet peeves is when people are late. Not the “late” thing itself. But the excuses people offer up.
I cringed a little, because I’m often running late. I know that being late can imply I don’t respect the wait-ee’s time. Or that I’m being unprofessional. Both are not who I want to be.
I was also curious. Why did the excuses bother him? Sometimes the things that make us late are beyond our control. (Though I’ll admit here, on the record, that I often fall victim to the creative person’s sense of time as fluid and elastic, stretchy enough to accommodate my belief I can really squish an hour’s worth of tasks into 27 minutes….)
Frank said, “If you’re late, you’re late. I’ll take the next person in line, that’s all. Or whatever….”
But, he added, “When you offer me your excuses, you’re really trying to put the load on me. And I refuse to pick that up.”
Frank is saying an excuse is a justification for what we’ve done. When we try to justify our actions, we are actually trying to avoid guilt. And since we’re trying to avoid our responsibility–to show up on time–we are ever-so-gently sort of resting it on Frank.
“Nothin’ doing'”, he said. “Just apologize, and try not to do it again.”
It was such a new concept to me, we spent the entire session talking about it.
And of course, I realized he was right. Whether I had a good reason or not, I’m responsible. Not him.
When we mess up, and create a problem for someone else, the honorable thing is to own that.
Maybe the traffic was terrible. (Could I have left a few minutes earlier, just to be safe?)
Maybe someone else kept ME waiting. (Could I have phoned Frank and given him the option of rescheduling me?)
Maybe my car wouldn’t start. (Could I have noticed the battery was problematic, and been proactive about replacing it?)
Even with a good reason (an emergency situation, a last-minute deadline, bad weather), it’s not Frank’s problem. It’s mine.
And by offering excuses, I’m subtly trying to involve him in my problem. To let myself off the hook.
And he wants no part of it.
“I’m not mad, I’m not resentful,” he said. “Stuff happens. I just don’t want it on my plate.”
Now, at first glance, this seems like small potatoes. Late to an appointment? Pfhhht! Big deal!
But carried to an extreme, we find people who habitually blame others for their own shortcomings.
If I don’t put the effort into doing my marketing, if I don’t set aside enough time to clean my workspace for an open studio, if I don’t take the time to add new work to my online shop, who’s to blame for that? Not some mythical set of circumstances. Me.
Maybe it was a bad year. Maybe there wasn’t enough time. But the reality is, I made a choice. I set up other things as a priority–and rightly so.
But that decision was mine.
It gets worse. And you’ve seen it for yourself, among your peers, in the news.
Sent that fair application in a month late? Then blame the producer, saying they’re money-grubbing for charging the late fee? Yeah, right.
You overcharged a client, or cheated them out of money? Then say it’s because society doesn’t respect your line of work enough to allow you to make more money? Yeah, right.
You cheated on your spouse, and then say it’s because they aren’t fun to be around anymore? Yeah, right.
I’ve been making a better effort not to offer excuses anymore. (And boy, do I have really, really, really good excuses this past year.) It’s just not who I want to be.
It’s hard, but it’s…rewarding.
It feels a little bit like being a grown-up.