Both Things Are True
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Are you feeling guilty about something? Are you judging yourself and sentencing yourself, once again, to feeling that you're wrong, bad, and faulty?
Guilt can be a useful emotion when it signals that we have made a misstep. We have not shown up in the world the way we would have liked to, and we know we can do better, so now we ought to do something to set it right. Some form of apology, reparations, and/or change is now due.
Fair enough. But for those of us who feel guilty all the time and tend to harshly beat ourselves up for every mistake, giving equal weight to small slip-ups and huge blunders, well, we may be dealing with something altogether different: toxic shame.
Guilt says, "You have done something wrong." Shame says, "You ARE something wrong."
This morning I was feeling horrible for not taking my kids to school. They're perfectly capable of going on their own, but I always take them, though they've recently started coming home by themselves on public transit. It's not far, and they know the route by heart. They've been TTC-ing it with me on trains, buses and streetcars all over the city, since they were born.
But I've been having a great deal of trouble sleeping lately, and last night it finally caught up to me. I had one of the chronic low-abdomen cramps I've experienced since I was little, so last night I went to bed early (guilt, for not being available to my kids). I took sleeping pills (guilt, for relying on medication) but ended up having a huge allergy attack. I took my puffers and my Reactine and tossed and turned for two more hours (guilt, for not being able to turn off my stupid mind), scratching hives and coughing and clearing my throat until suddenly the bathroom light came on and it was after seven. I haven't slept that late in years.
"I can't take you guys today," I announced. I hadn't even made coffee. I began to pack lunches and realized there was no fruit because I had run out of time to go to the store. My son began to protest.
"It's not the same without you, Mama," he pleaded. I felt like I had been slapped across the face; I felt like a complete asshole. But I reacted impatiently, reminding him it would be fine, hurrying him to pack up his Halloween project and get everything together. My daughter was upset her favourite mask was in the clean laundry and I wouldn't let her dig for it. "You're going to be late," I insisted, using exasperation to push down the guilt. "You have a hundred clean masks here! Pick one!"
When they were finally out the door I was overwhelmed with the thought that I was failing them. What mother doesn't take her kids to school when they really want her to? What kind of mother demands autonomy just because her throat is sore and she overslept? What kind of mother doesn't just get her shit together and push through that? What kind of person doesn't set an alarm on a school day? What kind of person? What kind of person?
Wow. You wouldn't have wanted to be in my head this morning.
Two things can be true at the same time
Fortunately, my counselor's voice popped into my head, saying, "Both things can be true, Nicole."
She was referring to our recent conversation about my beautiful, blind kitten, Coco, who ran outside suddenly and within seconds had chased a pigeon right over the side of the balcony. His sudden, shocking death was one of the most traumatic things I had ever experienced - not because I'm any stranger to trauma, but because in the past, the trauma usually happened to me. One of the ways I got through so much childhood abuse and adult trauma was by telling myself what is probably karmic bullshit, but was comforting nonetheless: This is happening for a reason. What is the lesson? What did I do to deserve this or, did my soul request this experience on Earth, as Wayne Dyer would have said?
When your innocent, blind, five month old kitten dies in front of you, and you were supposed to protect him and keep him safe, and he is totally innocent, such justifications seem threadbare at best. I couldn't make sense of his death and felt a crushing weight of responsibility and guilt. My inner critic, tamed but still lurking, screamed at me: What kind of person can't even keep a kitten alive? What kind of person can't catch a little kitten in time? What kind of person doesn't put him in a locked room before going out on the balcony? What kind of person has to tell her children their beloved pet died on her watch? What kind of person has to call the superintendent to scrape their kitten off the lobby roof? What kind of person? What kind of person? What kind of person?
The worst thing, I told my counselor, was that I had been praying to sleep better. The kitten often woke me up all through the night, which wasn't helping my insomnia. Had I inadvertently wished and subconsciously facilitated his death just so I wouldn't have the hassle of a very vocal kitten waking me up?
Oh yeah, my mind went there.
Fortunately, my counselor brought me back to sanity by saying "Both things are true." I loved my kitten and would have done anything to protect him. He died in a tragic accident. Yes, I have fewer sleep disturbances through the night (for the most part) now that he is gone.
I wanted to take my kids to school this morning. I always do, and today would have been no different, but I was feeling incredibly beat up physically and overslept. I did not intend to make their lives harder, although I did. I will apologize for being impatient with them and repair our bond as best I can, this afternoon. I am human. Both things are true.
When you're dealing with the old, familiar feeling of toxic shame, ask yourself: What was my intention? Did I intend to cause harm? I may have done something wrong, made a mistake, but if I didn't intend to cause harm, can I take action to correct the problem and forgive myself? Can it be true that I made a mistake AND that I'm not, myself, a mistake?
Guilt and shame can keep us stuck in that old familiar feeling of being a screw-up. For me, that eventually leads to irritation at others for 'making me feel that way' and a feeling of 'why bother trying when I just keep missing it'. Really, I'm the only one passing judgment on myself and simultaneously torturing myself with guilt while excusing myself from having to make positive changes because I might fail.
When it comes to your mistakes, stay curious. Ask yourself, where does this come from? What does this remind me of? What are the facts of what really happened, and is my self-judgment warranted in this situation or is it completely out of proportion? What can I do to correct this error and move forward?
As always, stay curious. It's the key to recognizing the difference between guilt and shame, and healing from both.