I’ve been a jerk many times in my life. But one time that stands out for me happened when I was 13. I had been invited to the bat mitzvah of a girl I barely knew. A bat mitzvah is a big event; at least 100 people were there. After singing “Happy Birthday,” some kid usually started chanting, “Skip around the room, skip around the room, we won’t shut up until you skip around the room.” Obviously, the intent was to make the birthday child … skip around the room.
On this occasion, I started the chant, but it fell flat on its face. Not a single person joined the chant with me.
It wasn’t until I was in college, recalling this embarrassing incident, that I finally realized my shameful behavior. The birthday girl, who appeared in class sporadically, sometimes showed up on crutches and sometimes arrived in a wheelchair. I had completely forgotten about her disability because she had put them aside for her bat mitzvah. Ignorantly, obliviously, I had thrown her illness in everyone’s face. What a horrible child!
It’s easier to forgive a child’s behavior than an adult’s. It’s also easier to forgive unintentional cruelty than intentional harm. But regardless, I will always feel a little ashamed that I hurt that girl and her family that day.
Shame, that gut-wrenching, nauseating feeling, keeps people from acknowledging when they’ve been hurtful. So often, admitting that you’re guilty means being overcome with shame. We all want to be the good guy. It’s awful to discover that we’ve been the villain.
The other thing that stops people from admitting when they’ve been wrong is punishment. Often, the punishment is shame: “Shame on you!” If a person admits to a spouse that he or she has been overreactive or harsh toward the spouse, will the person be understood and forgiven or will he/she be punished and repeatedly shamed?
Being able to take responsibility for one’s bad behavior is in everyone’s best interest. Being condescending, being harshly critical, being explosive, being prejudiced—these behaviors and more may occur for all of us, but unacknowledged and unchecked, they can become a person’s identity, overshadowing higher qualities and damaging or destroying relationships.
What to do:
- Focus on learning about yourself, not punishing yourself
- Separate the behavior from your identity; you can overcome the behavior, and it doesn’t have to define who you are
- Be honest with yourself
- Breathe, calm yourself, and tolerate the unpleasant feelings
- Take responsibility for your behavior
- Apologize, if possible
- Commit to being the person you want to be
What not to do:
Twelve-step groups, support groups, and psychotherapy can assist individuals in regaining clarity and self-compassion in order to end abusive behaviors, including the abusive behavior of self-loathing and self-abuse.
- Lie to yourself
- Blame the victim
- Beat yourself up
These suggestions are sometimes easier said than done. It can take time, patience, and emotional support to work through these steps. A person may not get the understanding and forgiveness he or she desires. It’s important to do it anyway, regardless of the reaction. Just because someone becomes aware of his or her behavior doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Hopefully, with repeated awareness and commitment, the person can learn to stop it faster.
In families that carry histories of substance abuse and/or physical abuse, the level of damage can be extreme, resulting in a greater need to justify, ignore, or suppress awareness of these behaviors. Twelve-step groups, support groups, and psychotherapy can assist individuals in regaining clarity and self-compassion in order to end abusive behaviors, including the abusive behavior of self-loathing and self-abuse.
No one is perfect. There is no shame in learning, growing, and striving to be your best self.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor
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