Shaming Yourself Over Past Decisions


Photo credit: Morgan Thompson

“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
— Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)

I went for lunch after church yesterday with a good friend.  It was finally warm enough to eat outside, and so we did, but still sat as close to the outdoor fire pit as possible.

I always appreciate it, when you get to the point in friendships where you can bypass small talk and get straight at what you really want to discuss, what is really pressing and feels most important at the time -when you don’t have to lay groundwork to have meaningful conversation.  Besides, there’s been more than enough conversation about the weather over the last few months to cover the rest of the year.

As my friend and I ate, we talked about the things that are currently giving us anxiety – the unforeseen things that lay out of ahead of us that we can’t control.  We looked back at decisions we made months and years ago and ask if they were the right decisions. Did they set us up for the unsettlement we feel right now, or will they one day prove to be the right decisions all along?

When people ask me why I did certain things throughout my life, I respond that they seemed like good ideas at the time. And this is true. I don’t tend to make a habit of willingly making stupid decisions that I know will precipitate unfavorable consequences, at least not regarding decisions that carry alot of weight.  Even so, in the attempt to make good decisions, I’ve made some really bad ones.

One of my great struggles in life is shaming myself for past decisions that didn’t turn out so well. The old adage says that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not entirely true in my case.  I have much stronger vision for pinpointing every single mistake I made and beating myself up over them year after year after year. My memory occludes the good choices I have made – the places where I stopped going in an unhelpful direction and purposely turned and started walking on a better path, or the times when I actually exhibited some stellar parenting skills, or the times when I really loved people unselfishly.

Nope, in my mind I can only see where I failed my kids, my friends, and myself. If only I had done this thing… If only I had said this instead of that… If only I had just walked away….or come closer.

I recognize that alot of my self-shaming and anxiety come about because of beliefs I internalized at a young age.  For one, I believed for years that God had a narrowly defined path for each of us to take in life, and it was our job to find and stay on that path, lest we risk screwing everything up.  I also grew up in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that offered little grace for mistakes and fumbling around trying to find one’s path. This kind of worldview only served to help me continue to fail.  How could I ever stay on that one narrow path? How could I suck it up and gut my way through life when I didn’t understand how life works?

Fortunately for me, my understanding of God and failure and bad decisions has morphed over time.  I’m gradually beginning to see those poor decisions of the past to be good things, in the sense that they have become my teachers.  I still sometimes doubt myself, and wonder if certain choices I made are going to cause everything to blow up in my face at some point. But when I’m at my best, I look at those “mistakes” through the following lenses.

  1. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I know I’m not the only person that does this – looking back on something we did or a choice we made and berating ourselves for not having taken some important fact or piece of information into consideration.  What I usually discover, though, is that particular fact usually isn’t available until after we’ve made out decision.  In essence, we shame ourselves for not making decisions based on information that we either don’t know or doesn’t exist yet. That is just lunacy, really.

I think this kind of shaming is made worse considering how much information we have readily available at our fingertips these days with technology and The Google. I know that I often unconsciously think that I just put in the right search phrase, or read the right book or website, or listen to the right person, I’ll find the answer I need for a particular decision.  I conclude, if I can’t find that answer, it’s because I didn’t search hard enough.

In many ways, this ‘information at your fingertips in less than 10 seconds” has not served us well because it keeps us frantically searching…or, at least it does this to me.  We need to be able to offer ourselves the grace to stop the information search at some point, make the necessary decision, and go with it, come whatever may.  To qutoe Theodore Roosevelt (and I haven’t fact-checked that he actually said, but it’s still true): “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  That’s all we can do. We humans are not omniscient.

2. My mistakes and “bad” decisions are my teachers because they show me what doesn’t work.

I read somewhere a long time ago that Thomas Edison said something about not viewing his invention failures as real problems because they taught him what doesn’t work. Putting a positive framing on these kinds of things can really make all the difference, especially if you have the right end goal in mind.

The goal of life is not to be perfect, at least not in the traditional sense of the word where we only do things the right way, offering up beautiful, always up to standard, results. This is entirely unrealistic, and misses the whole point of being human…or divine, for that matter. A much more helpful way to look at perfection is the idea of completeness.  The goal in life, I think, is to become complete, integrated, and whole.  This takes some work and alot of grace, and it certainly doesn’t happen through getting everything “right” all the time.  We become complete and whole by doing shadow work (see Carl Jung) and wrestling with the sides of ourselves that we don’t always want to see or acknowledge. When we face our “bad” decisions, we are at a wonderful gateway to begin facing and uncovering the aspects of ourselves that are in pain and need healing and integration.

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

3. Who are we to say with certainty what is good, or what is bad?

I’ve quoted him a billion times, but my favorite saying of Richard Rohr is “Everything belongs.”  If this is true, and I believe it is, it means that there is nothing that is not redeemable. God wastes nothing. How, then, can anything be completely, and eternally, bad?  OK, all of you people that are immediately wanting to ask me questions about the bad-ness of rape, and war, and the Holocaust…I saw that coming.  And I ask the same myself – how can those not be bad?  At some level, they are horrible, un-excusable, evil, wretched. But I firmly believe, that somehow, God can envelop them, hold them, and incorporate them into goodness.  I don’t know how; it’s a mystery. After reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written about the Holocaust, I’m convinced that deeper meaning and good can be found when you push through the horrors that appear on the surface of life.

I also look to the idea of yin and yang from the Tao.  Now, I”m certainly not a Taoist, or expert in Eastern thought, but it holds meaning for me. This is what I  can see from the little I understand:

  • Opposites, or the dual nature of things, balance each other out.  They create wholeness when brought together
  • There are no absolutes in life, everything is interconnected. It would be difficult to say that something is completely all bad, or all good, especially when we have a limited understanding of life and can only see one little piece of the proverbial elephant, as it were. We judge good and bad through our own filters.
  • Everything is changing and is in a state of process – what is now may be something different later.

And to end this point I’m attaching a famous Buddhist story I’ve heard many times from various people that makes the point quite well, I think.  I stole this exact version from David Allen.

One day a man’s horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?

Moral of this post? We need to stop shaming ourselves over our perceived mistakes.  We’re OK, and if we’re wise we’ll know to learn from everything that happens to us.  And for all of us that worry that our choices might ruin our kids lives (and I”m preaching to myself here):

  1. God (Life, the Universe, whatever you call it)  is working harder for our children than we are
  2.  We don’t know everything; there is no way we can completely predict what will hurt our children or make them stronger.  Those little guys are amazingly resilient.
  3.  Apologize frequently, ask for feedback, praise them often, and teach them how to contact a therapist when they are adults.

Back to lunch with my friend.  We are usually much harder on ourselves than others are. My friend beats herself up over choices and worries about how she will handle certain circumstances that the future might bring.  I, as a somewhat objective outsider, am wicked impressed with so many of the hard, difficult decisions she’s made…who cares if they turn out perfectly or not. I’m inspired by her bravery to step out and do life, and be creative, and love others.

Yes, there will be people who will love to point out our flaws and where we royally screwed up in life. But to quote the wonderful Brené Brown:

“UnMarketing: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”   And.. “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
― Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead






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