I am a bad person, and I have done bad things. When I was 13, I was absolutely awful to my little sister. I remember screaming at her because she had been in my room. Probably because she admired me back then and wanted to investigate the cool things of the older sister in her life. I was furious. I out-of-control screamed at her, then walked to the store and bought a lock for my bedroom door to keep her out. She was 10, and I was angry at the world. It wasn’t an isolated incident, I was horrible to her through most of our childhood, and I carry that with me as an adult in guilt form.
Later, I cheated on my boyfriend. We were in love, it was our first time really in love for either of us, so it was pretty and awkward and we were 17 and hormonal and liked to party. I made out with a friend of his one night, and then told him, wracked with guilt. He did not forgive me. I didn’t do much to regain his trust after that, and wouldn’t have deserved it if he’d offered it. I still feel guilty about that too.
As a result of these and all the other little things I've done wrong, I’ve spent a lot my adult life really believing I’m a bad person. I smile and do good things for people now, but I feel like at any moment, someone will only have to ask the right questions to the right person to find out that actually, I’m evil, undeserving, unworthy, hurtful. These flashes of memory of the bad things I've done come back especially when I fuck up even a little bit as a grown-up person, like when I'm a few days late on a utility bill or I hit "reply" without including the attachment to a bunch of important people, or I snap at my partner.
Brene Brown is the expert on shame, and I have read all her books, hoping that reading them would cure me of my guilt and make me a normal deserving human (you should totally buy and read Daring Greatly BTW). They really have helped, but I'd like to offer up something else that helps too.
One day a friend of mine, who heard the tale of me and my sister, asked, “Were you ever disciplined by your parents for the way you acted?”.
No. No I wasn’t.
“Because you were a child,” she reminded me. “A child.”
A learning, growing, developing human being.
And while being a learning, growing, human being does not excuse horrible behavior necessarily, it does help us understand that we are not perfect, can change, will learn, and do change. And as we grow we can respond differently the next time we're presented with the opportunity to act badly or goodly, or do a right thing or a wrong thing.
Realizing our Full Potential
In addition to Brene Brown getting me out of my horrible-person spiral, I rely a lot on Carol Dweck's work on Mindset, which essentially says that in order to realize our full potential, we need to understand that we are not fixed people. We do not have a set capacity for intelligence or doing good or success, we are capable of growing and learning as we go. It's the miracle of being human, we get to overwrite our past every day through the malleability of our minds.
I am not the same person I was at 13, or 17, or at 26, or even two months ago. The reason is that my brain is capable of taking in new information, reacting to experience, and making choices that result in my behavior. Sometimes I do bad things. I am mean, or thoughtless, or inconsiderate, or selfish. But what saves me from hiding under the covers and living in the belief that I am not good enough, is that I can see it, acknowledge it, feel the impact of it, regret it, and make a different decision next. I can apologize, recognize what perfect storm of conditions led me to act that way or do that thing (or not do that thing), and make a small change that leads to it being less likely to happen again. And if it does, I can remember that I am a learning, growing person capable of change, and I can forgive myself. This is mindfulness in action, really. It's starting over every moment and every day, and trying again. Like yoga.
So. Why is a career blog writing about guilt and shame and being a bad person? Because your beliefs about who you are and what you can do because of who you are are a huge determinant of your professional success. Coming to terms with those wicked horrible ick memories, and forgiving them, and starting a fresh practice of being who you are today, is absolutely critical to letting yourself succeed. You are not the same person you were yesterday, and tomorrow you may be different still. You deserve what you want.