When I was a junior in high school, I went through a difficult friend breakup. It was the first major loss I had experienced, and I didn’t always handle the situation particularly gracefully. Finally, being the writer I am, I wrote a letter explaining everything I was feeling… but then I made the mistake of leaving it on her doorstep. As the writer, I came with the unique bias of understanding exactly what I meant to communicate– namely, I was feeling abandoned, sad, and hurt because of the friendship we had lost. Unfortunately, that is not the overall message that was actually communicated. It came off as spiteful and angry –maybe there was more anger and prickliness in there than I was willing to admit at the time– and it hurt her. I’ll never know if our friendship may have one day been repaired if I hadn’t given her a copy of my deepest feelings during the time of my deepest hurt… sometimes, I still punish myself for that letter and wonder if writing it makes me a bad person.
Truth is, most (if not all) of us have our own letters penned out of pain. For some of us, it’s not writing a letter without thinking about the consequences: it’s neglecting a boyfriend or girlfriend because it was the wrong relationship. It’s hitting “reply all” on an email complaining about a difficult client. No one is impervious to the shortcomings that come with being human, but one misstep (or even two or three) doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means you made a mistake. I watched a TED Talk recently about the effects of shame on our lives… the difference between “I made a mistake, and that mistake hurt you. I apologize” and “I am a mistake, and I hurt you. I apologize.” Every single person I’ve ever known has made a mistake. That doesn’t make them mistakes.
Too many people I know define themselves by their hurt letters, their missteps in relationships, their tactless emails, and their shortcomings. But when was the last time you defined someone you cared for or loved by theirs? I can think of few times when I held a mistake against my mother, father, boyfriend, best friend, or cat… even if it was something that hurt me. It never takes too long to see just how much the compassion outweighs a momentary prickle of misplaced pain. Too often, we are far kinder to the people in our lives than we are to ourselves. In my life, I take my missteps as a justification to shame myself. “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”
Shame is a really awkward thing to talk about. It’s uncomfortable and out of place in many peoples’ regular conversation, so most of us just don’t talk about it. We change the subject. We brush it under the rug. We pretend it’s not there. We hope one day when we lift up the rug, it won’t be anymore. But the unfortunate thing is, no matter how much we avoid it and clean it up and pretend and hope it’ll go away, it’s still there. Reckoning with our shame and understanding its cause (or causes) allows us the opportunity to move past it and care for ourselves in the same way we care about the other people in our lives. I feel shame for my hurt letter because it caused someone I cared about pain. I feel shame for my hurt letter because it robbed me of the chance to know whether or not our friendship might one day have been repaired. I feel shame for my hurt letter because I feel that I should have known better than to pen difficult feelings and share them with the person those difficult feelings were felt for.
Much of the shame I subject myself to is the “you should have known better” variety. As in: “You should have known better than to write an emotionally charged letter and share it without letting it sit for a couple days.” “You should have known better than to take four AP classes your senior year, try and be editor in chief for the yearbook, participate in NHS, marching band, orchestra, and student direct and stage manage for the school plays if you wanted to maintain a 3.9 GPA.” “You should have known better than to let the same person break your heart on multiple occasions for six years before you got the hint.” “You should have known better to think you’re worth anything.” You can’t punish yourself for not knowing what you know before you knew it, but I’m a downright pro.
I can’t imagine my mother, father, boyfriend, or best friend speaking to me in the same manner in which I speak to myself sometimes… I can’t imagine them wanting to in the first place. I can’t imagine allowing anyone to speak to me in the same manner in which I speak to myself, even if some part of me felt I understood where they were coming from. That’s because I don’t subscribe to the belief that it’s ever okay to speak to someone in that degrading of a manner, regardless of the degree of mistake, length of mistake, or their relationship to the person on the receiving end. I am the only person who understands every facet of my triumphs and tribulations, and it’s really upsetting to think that that level of understanding and connection doesn’t foster a little more self-compassion.
I am by far my harshest judge and jury when it comes to my experiences in my life. I am the first to knock myself upside the head when I do something without thinking or with hurtful reverberations. I’m the first to tell myself, “You should have known better. What were you thinking? You’re worthless. You’re bad. You’re a mistake.” But I’m also the first to tell my best friend, “It’s okay. You made a mistake. Yeah, it wasn’t your best move, but you’re still a great person.” What the hell, brain? I hope that most of the time, I end up making the compassionate choice rather than the hurtful one… that my history is far more filled with hugs, smiles, and support rather than hurt letters. In my brain (or heart, or whatever body part is in control of that), I know it is. But I fixate on the times I’ve made mistakes and use them as justifications to call myself a mistake instead. Admitting that I made a mistake is scary, because it means I’m a human. It means I’m vulnerable. So it’s easier to say that I am a mistake without hope for redemption. But that’s the shame talking. I’m not a mistake. I’m a human being who has made mistakes. Huge, monumental difference.
No one is impervious to the inevitability of mistake-making, and most people I know are no more impervious to self-shaming. It can be difficult to separate ourselves from the mistakes we’ve made, because we’re in such close contact with them all the time. But we’re also in close contact with the times we took a friend out after a bad breakup, even though we had an 8am the next day. We are also in close contact with the late night check-ins, friendship brownies, and support we have provided. It just gets cloudy every time we allow shame into our lives. On those days, things like the letter I wrote in 17-year-old hurt comes creeping back up. On those days, I sometimes slip and call myself a mistake. But making mistakes every now and then does not need to shame us, nor does it need to define us.
We are our experiences, and we are our reactions to those experiences. It’s not the mistake that tells us who we are– it’s how we respond, and how we grow in the face of that adversity. So yes, I once wrote a letter out of hurt and made the mistake of giving it to the person I felt that hurt for. Yes, it hurt her. Yes, I am sorry for the pain it caused. But I am not sorry for who I am. I am a good person, who took a misstep when she was 17 years old. And now, I am a person who knows that it’s always best to take a couple of days to cool off before sharing emotional letters… and sometimes, those letters are better left burned altogether. I am a woman learning that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and learning the difference between being a human who makes mistakes and being a mistake who makes mistakes… I don’t believe the latter category exists, in reality. Mistakes are a part of life, but shame doesn’t need to be.