Guilt and Shame are NOT Badges of Honor

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Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

So, February 16th came and went.  It was five years ago that my dad passed away at 44.  I still feel bad about how things ended.  I feel bad about cutting our last phone call short because I was busy.  I feel bad that I saw him maybe three or four times in the decade leading up to his death.  I feel bad about every fight we had. I feel bad for every time I called him a drunk or a loser, even though most of those were just me being a teenager who was mad at her dad for never being able to get his shit together.  I feel bad that he died alone in some shitty room in my grandmother’s house.  I feel bad that I took care of all of his final arrangements when my sister was the one who was closer to him and should have been the one calling the shots.  Fuck, I even feel bad about this one time when he bought my sister and I Mickey Mouse balloons and I asked him to exchange them out for something different.  To be fair, he’d gotten those same balloons for us before and also, I was five years old.

I’m thirty-one now.

Basically, I feel bad about a lot of shit.  Just last year I had to put down my three-year-old German Shepherd because she was sick with Canine Myasthenia Gravis and Megaesophagus.  I’d tried really hard to keep her alive; I fed her upright (do you know how fucking hard it is to feed a dog in a high chair?), I gave her all her meds, I bought her the special neck pillow and the bed, treated her pneumonia after she aspirated because that shit just happens even when you do everything right, etc.  But in the end, I couldn’t save her, so I did the kind thing.  At least, I thought it was the kind thing right up until the moment she slipped away, and then I cursed myself for being such a garbage dog mom and sobbed on the floor, cradling my lifeless dog telling her how sorry I was.  When we got in the car, I remember I just kept saying, “I’m going to hell for that.”

So, when someone accuses me of being a grudge holder, I can’t help but laugh because, by far, the longest standing grudges I hold are with ME, MYSELF, AND I.

Does that resonate with anyone?  Have you ever been irked by people who can do something shitty and they just like…get over it and sleep soundly at night?  Have you ever been accused of being too hard on people, only to think to yourself, I’m no harder on them than I am on myself.  What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that you shouldn’t be such a dick, not even to yourself.  Chill the fuck out.

I was raised Catholic.  I went to church on Sundays and went to Catechism on Tuesdays and I listened while someone constantly told me that I was a sinner, I was born that way, and I would die that way, and I should tell God I’m sorry all the freaking time so he will forgive me.

Ya’ll have heard of “Catholic Guilt,” right?

Well, I totally have that.  I’m an optimistic agnostic at best, but that part of my Roman Catholic upbringing stuck with me.   I have it so bad that I could walk into a church right now, and even a priest would probably look at me and say, “Girl, you’ve got to let that stuff go.”  I know that’s probably true, but sometimes it just feels like there aren’t enough Hail Marys and Our Fathers in the world.

“Jesus, Alicia.  What the hell did you do?”

Nothing special.  I lashed out in anger and I was cruel in moments where I could have been kind (WHO THE FUCK HASN’T?), not that Dad made it all that easy to be kind to him.  Which reminds me:  If you can, choose kindness.  You can literally never go wrong choosing kindness.  I have never regretted one instance of kindness in my life.  There were plenty of times where I was kind to my father, only to have him be a raging dick face to me anyway, and there were times where he was a total dick face and I was a douche nugget right back.  Can you guess which one keeps me up at night?

In the end, my dad and I were at least on speaking terms, which in and of itself was a real achievement for us.  Our last words to each other were “I love you.” And, as my sister kindly reminds me, he was, in fact, suffering from alcoholism and he was kind of a jerk most of the time, so we did our best.

The truth is, that shitty, nagging, “I’m a piece of garbage” feeling isn’t really guilt at all; it’s shame.  Brene Brown (I’m going to mention her all the time because she’s amazing, so get over it) talked about this in Daring Greatly AKA my personal development bible.  She says that guilt is I did something bad and shame is I am bad.  And one of those feelings is linked to addiction, suicide, anger, aggression, etc.  Can you guess which one it is?

Look, when you do something shitty, it’s normal to feel guilty.  In fact, that’s the good person in you reminding you that you are in fact, a good person who did a shitty thing.  Guilt gives you something to aspire to.  It gives you a lesson to learn from.  If you do something bad and you don’t feel bad, you’re probably an asshole or a sociopath and we can’t be friends anyway.

Shame, on the other hand, is the megaphone of your Inner Shit Talker, and it’s the little feeling inside you that tells you that you are a piece of human garbage.  It’s the thing that tells me that I’m a shitty daughter and sister and a dog murderer.  It tells me that I am all of those things and because of the mistakes I’ve made, I’m a dumpster fire of a human being.

My therapist used to talk to me about my guilt, never making the distinction between guilt and shame.  She’d ask me why my guilt kept me up at night, why I just can’t seem to forgive myself.

“Because that’s like saying it’s okay.  And that would make me a bad person.”

I didn’t realize it then, but I’d just said a fucking mouthful.

How the actual fuck does constantly telling yourself what a piece of shit you are make you less of a piece of shit?  Seems counterproductive.  That’s a stupid argument.   Even in church, they taught us to confess our sins, wish to be absolved, and we would be forgiven.  Whatever you believe in, life should work the same way.  Seriously.

Couldn’t you just own the shitty thing you did and try to be less shitty in the future?  Couldn’t you use it as fuel to go around spreading some non-shittiness in the world?  If you fuck up, own it, apologize, and move on.  As the wise AF Rafiki once said:

“Ah yes, the past can hurt.  But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

I can keep replaying the movie reel of all my failures in my head over and over and use it as a reason to think I’m crap.  Or, I can understand that just like every other person (you know, because I’m not special…just like you, remember?) makes mistakes, and I did the best I could at the time under the circumstances.  I can apologize and try to be kinder in the future.  If I feel bad, I can try to remember that it’s because I did something bad and not because I am bad.  And that way, my mistakes can mean something instead of just being fuel for whatever self-destructive bender I can think of.

If I feel bad about all the times I reminded Dad of his failings, I can make sure that at least in death, that Dad’s drinking and his douchebaggery aren’t the only things anyone ever remembers about him.  For real though, he loved my sister and I a lot, and when he laughed, I mean really laughed (not at someone’s expense), it was fucking contagious and incandescent.  He had the best laugh in the whole world.  This one time, my sister got sick on the night of the Father/Daughter Dance, so we stayed home and he got dressed up and made us a fancy dinner of steak and lobster and we had a dance party in that living room.  Best. Night. Ever.

So, in the spirit of trying to move forward, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop kicking the shit out of myself.  My dad wouldn’t have wanted that for me.  I know he loved me and he knew I loved him.  That doesn’t mean all the mean things we said and did to each other are all of a sudden okay.  And it doesn’t mean I’m a shitty person.  It just means that I choose peace and forward motion because I deserve that.  Everyone deserves that.

And seriously, putting my dog down was the kind thing.  *repeats to myself* I am not a dog murderer.

If you’re feeling bad about something, so bad that you feel the need to beat yourself up about it, a more fitting tribute to your mistakes is to learn from them and use them as fuel to be more kick-ass.  There’s no gold medal for who can hate themselves the longest.  The fact that you can see the error of your ways is proof enough that you’re a decent person.  We are all crap at life sometimes.  That doesn’t mean you are crap.  Mistakes don’t define you. You’ve done the best you could.  Move forward and choose peace.

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