August 3, 2007
“Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me” is the title of a book I read this week. It was a study of how we are hard wired to protect our ego at all costs. This means that it is in our nature to deny and self-justify our actions. This inclination is connected to the issues of embarrassment, humiliation, guilt and shame. Those topics were explored further in the book “I Thought It Was Just Me.” Both of these books touched upon many of the issues and topics I’ve read about previously. Including, “A Mind of Its Own,” “Unspeak,” “The Lucifer Effect,” “and “Counterfactual.” Not to mention, “One Nation Under Therapy” and “Generation Me.”
What it comes down to is that we tend to avoid any situation that makes us feel ashamed or stupid. When faced with our mistakes we often justify the reasons behind our decisions in order to avoid responsibility for our actions and to maintain a false sense of self-worth. Shame and blame end up covering up the truth. It takes courage to admit your mistakes, take responsibility, and move on. If we take the high road and do not blame others, we often wallow in self-shame instead. Neither response is healthy. Shame, unlike guilt, is not productive. Shame, on the other hand, only serves to chip away at our sense of self. Guilt is “I did something bad,” and shame is “I am something bad.” There is no way to really grow from shame. Guilt is a moderate feeling and should provide motivation for change.
Both books call for a change. Learning to grow up, let go and gather courage is what is needed. Learning to approach your problems and the problems of others with compassion and empathy is the only way to escape the vicious circle of shame and self-justification. It may not come easy, but life is much more painfully and difficult if it never comes at all.
Of course, both books led me to examine my own life and the lives of people I know. How can I apply these lessons? What in my life exemplifies the authors’ points?
I would say the book on shame applies the most to me. I often internalize conflicts and end up feeling somehow less than normal, functional and worthy. I am apt to blame myself for folly than lash out at others. In recent years, I’ve made an effort to acknowledge my mistakes and take responsibility instead of blaming myself. And there IS a difference. I recognize the larger picture, seeing how my choices fit with other people’s choices. I recognize the mistakes without pointing the finger. I try to resist the urge to find the blame and try to understand the motivations behind the poor choices that I and other people make.
Understanding where someone else is coming from creates compassion. It may not erase the past or the pain inflicted, but it does make it easier to move on. Shrugging off conflict as the result of an interaction with a bad person does not help at all. Judging the other person merely traps us in to a self-justification of victimhood.
Am I guilty of self-justification? Oh, I am sure I have fallen into that trap more than once in my life. What comes to mind most recently is my trouble with teaching at Ashland. My boss brought up a number of mistakes I made while teaching my classes. I offered reasons for my oversights or problems, but he wasn’t interested in hearing about it. I felt sheepish for even trying to explain the situations. In looking back, I see that I desired a sense of compassion and understanding from him. I wasn’t trying to convince him that he was wrong and I was right (as those who self-justify often do.) I was merely asking that he not be so harsh on me since I was new to the job and had received no formal training as a teacher. I had no real guidance from the departments I dealt with on how to handle the larger picture. I was supposed to step in, follow the syllabus, and not question anyone’s methods no matter how unreasonable they might seem to me. My boss expected both his instructors and his students to know all they needed to already. I admitted I made mistakes, but he never admitted that he might have failed me as a boss.
All of my reading has helped. Without a good background in psychology, I would have never been able to recognize my people’s attempts to self-justify their actions. Even as I react emotionally to their hurtful words, I know logically that they are exercising some Cognitive Dissonance. They know how badly they hurt me, yet they had to find a way to live with it. Instead of owning up to it, apologizing and moving on, I saw they are stuck in SHAME. I recognized the lies they he they tell themselves in order to protect their frail ego. I might have been duped, but I was able to move beyond my Blind Spot while he was not. There was a sort of comfort in that if nothing else.
Although not mentioned by name, I see how Displaced Anger plays into these topics as well. A friend of mine was angry with the men who had abused her in the past. When I heard she took it out on a stranger, I was appalled. She told me about joining a fight outside a bar one night. A bunch of people were beating on some girl and she joined in, self-justifying her actions by saying that the “Skank deserved it.” As far as I could tell the girl had never done anything to my friend personally, but she still found it necessary to kick and hit her anyway. I don’t think my friend ever understood or admitted her mistake and taking her pain and anger out on this by-stander. It didn’t take me long to realize she had hit that other girl because of her displaced anger. She had not fully dealt with the experience of feeling powerless over and over in her life.
I considered bringing my insight up to her, but I never did. I knew my observation would have met with a defensive denial. My words of wisdom would have fallen on deaf ears. Sometimes it pays to stop wasting your breath and let people learn on their own.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Trying to educate a bigot is like shinning light into a pupil—it constricts.” People would rather stay deaf, dumb and blind than face their problems and mistakes. Self-denial and self-justification are most obvious in sexism and racism, but they also rear their ugly heads in much more simple and sinister ways in our every day life. Our daily interactions are sprinkled with fabrications and falsified memories. The truth is difficult to come by and even more difficult to recognize when we see it. It is easier to believe that we smart, sophisticated and sly than face our shame at feeling silly, stupid and so easily hurt. Tough people are typically trading in lies. A truly courageous person isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, wrong or just plain open!