On Regret

I’ve been thinking about regret lately, and how much regret I have and how it stems from deep-set shame over all kinds of things. I’ve managed to rack up regrets over every aspect of my life – how I walk, how I talk, how I eat, smile, laugh; everything I do is up for scrutiny and a certain sense of shame. At this point in my life, I’m not sure WHY I’m hanging on to so much shame and regret, but I doggedly cling to it like a bizarre life raft thinking that it will somehow keep me afloat.

Shame and regret can be useful tools. Humans and other animals learn from doing things wrong – if you never make mistakes, learning how to cope with challenges, and learning new skills will be difficult. (I have a pair of socks that say, “Screwing Up Is Part Of The Protocol” to remind me that making mistakes is part of the normal course of business of being human.) Being ashamed of or regretting something can be a useful reminder that what we’ve done is wrong, but shame and regret can also go too far and consume us.

On any given day, I probably think about a dozen or more things that I regret and I wish I had done differently or that had never happened. If I’m having a bad anxiety day, those thoughts might consume my thinking for most of the day, and my productivity and well-being. In the past (before I decided to seek help from a psychiatrist), I had severe panic attacks from thinking about something that happened 10 or 20 years ago and being consumed by the shame of my actions. It was a sense of regret that spiraled down into debilitating feelings of unworthiness, guilt, inferiority. Why? I took it for granted in the past, assumed I was supposed to feel that way, that the sense of shame and regret I felt was good and natural and that I SHOULD feel that way. But what does that actually do for me?

When I get consumed by those feelings, I don’t feel like I’m actually learning anything new, that I’m growing as a person. I realized in the last year or so that what I’m doing is beating myself down, that these self-conscious feelings are destructive. I don’t think I realized how negatively these exercises in regret impacted my life until recently, when I connected my internal “fantasy” life (mainly the fantasy of being able to navigate personal and professional situations without saying or doing the wrong thing, without being goofy or weird) with the feelings of shame and regret. Normally, an episode of being consumed by regret would be followed by episodes of escapism – here’s how this would have turned out if I was better at social situations, or if I wasn’t as awkward, or if I was more self-assured.

I still can’t answer why I regret so much, and I know logically it serves no purpose other than to further fuel my anxiety and give it something to latch onto. I started (re-started, really) meditating with the Headspace app and I noticed that even during meditation my mind naturally gravitates to something I did wrong and starts to focus on that. The meditation does help me push those thoughts away (the method is called “noting,” whereby you acknowledge the thought or feeling and move on), but I can’t answer why I should keep clinging to this consumption, other than that it’s a habit and I’ve lived so long like this that I don’t know how to live any other way.

I’m not one for resolutions, but I started thinking at the end of the year that I wanted to change this about myself. I want to stop pre-shaming myself and worrying about what I might do wrong or how I might fuck things up. I want to stop shaming myself during and after an event and picking apart everything I do. But mostly, I want to let go of all the regrets I have in my life. The burden of shame is great, and it can lead to a host of other negative behaviors (rage, anger, fear), and that it can be contagious in those around you. So this year, instead of having a resolution that I’ll forget about in a few weeks, I’m committing to letting go of this destructive shame and regret, to breaking a habit that’s become self-destructive.

Tiny Buddha has an article that provides a good starting point. But as with any project, breaking a bad habit requires a support system, not just will and determination, so the second part of this exercise is going to be remembering that I have a support system and actually using it. No one walks through life entirely alone.

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  – John Donne, Meditation XVII

The alternative is continuing a destructive cycle, which will undermine all the other aspects of my life. I don’t want my life to be consumed by something so worthless as regret over things I can no longer control or change, when I could be working on literally anything else of value in my life.

Unwanted Advances

Congress has joined several industries with the dubious honor of being rife with sexual misconduct (sexual assault, inappropriate advances, harassment, et al.) and, as with the tech industry and the entertainment industry, women (and men) are coming out of the woodwork to lay bare what’s happened to them. Some of the accusations are surprising – et tu, Al Franken? George Takei? Some of them are not. Many of the responses are typical retorts of, “Not my guy!” Some are just depressing – Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, is voting for Roy Moore because being a Republican is the most important thing to her and she can look past the allegations of sexual impropriety against him.

The NY Times has a recent podcast discussing this recent spate of scandals, and it’s worth a listen. Unsurprisingly, none of this is news – harassment in Congress has been going on for decades, and everyone remembers the impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal that came out of that. What IS new is that people feel emboldened to lay bare these problems and bring them to the forefront, yet we still see the same retorts of, “But it was so long ago,” and “How do we even know this is true?” Well, we’ll never be able to have an honest discussion about sexual assault or sexual harassment if we suppress victims when they make their accusations. “But what if they’re lying?” But what if they aren’t?

As described in the New York Times, the system in place to handle harassment claims in Congress is convoluted and serves to deter victims from coming forward.

“In more than 50 interviews, lawyers, lobbyists and former aides told The New York Times that sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those operating in Washington politics, and victims on Capitol Hill are forced to go through far more burdensome avenues to seek redress than their counterparts in the private sector.

“Under federal law, complainants must undergo a confidential process, where co-workers who might be able to provide corroborating evidence are excluded. They often must wait about three months before submitting an official complaint, yet must file one no later than 180 days after the episode. Once filed, victims must submit to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling and complete another 30 days of mediation.”

If you do manage to get your complaint in, good luck getting it taken seriously or even resolved.

So far, 2017 has been the year that everyone finally realized that there are no hallowed halls, and all of our heroes are problematic. Everyone’s closet has a skeleton in it. So what do we do about it? I think Al Franken’s call to have an ethics investigation into himself was a good start, but it doesn’t hide the fact that what he did was wrong. (As with most investigations in Congress, it’s likely to go nowhere, and is mostly for show.) Mitch McConnell likewise calling for Roy Moore to be immediately investigated on election is also a good start. But we have to do more and expect more – we can’t sit back and say, “Well, all these things happened a long time ago so it’s not a problem and we can ignore it.” We have to make a stand and say, “We don’t do that here. We don’t allow those things to happen.”

Even if you don’t believe every accusation, it’s just good practice to stand against sexual assault or harassment of any sort, and to have a system in place to investigate accusations (to either prove them true and punish the accused, or to show them as false and punish the accuser). Ignoring them or claiming any accusation is false only enables and emboldens predators.

On Being Bullied

Slate published an article in June by Kate Baggaley on the lasting impacts of childhood bullying, and how some psychiatrists have identified PTSD arising out of those experiences. The article goes over the standard forms of bullying – name calling, exclusion, rumors, physical harm – and the kinds of people who bully (including friends, social rivals, and, in my case, teachers and classmates who didn’t have skin in the game, but wanted to look tough and fit in with the cool kids). One thing people tend to forget, that the article touches on, is that bullying sticks with you for years after it stops.

I suffered from bullying every day when I was in school – kids called me fat, stupid, ugly; they threw food at me and called me “hungry hungry hippo”; they told me I looked like a wetback, said I smelled like fish, called me nerd and loser; a group of girls in 8th grade told me I could be in their group if I went up to all the guys at our lunch table and asked them to marry me – so I did, and all of the guys had something terrible to say to me, but the one that stuck out the most in my memory was the guy who told me he couldn’t marry a transformer, that I looked like a man trying to be a woman and I was “more than meets the eye.” Once, one of the girls in my gym class was being particularly verbally abusive to me and started shoving me. I told her to leave me along because she was just a bastard and she shut up and ran off crying. Her friends jumped in to continue the abuse, and I refused to apologize. Like most kids, I’m sure she had adopted a tough persona to cope with a shitty home life and was taken off guard by my response. She never apologized for bullying me, and I never apologized for my response.

I got the standard advice growing up – ignore those kids, they’re just words, maybe they’re intimidated by you, they probably want to be your friend but they’re afraid, etc. When my brother nearly died in an accident, a guy in my 9th grade class told me that I was such a loser my brother had to try to kill himself to get away from me. Call me skeptical, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing someone who secretly wants to be your friend says to you. I also fail to see how an adult would respond by saying, “Oh, those are just words!” I’ve seen grown-ass men get into fist-fights over less. I also got some truly atrocious “advice” from adults:  “Maybe they’re trying to tell you something. If kids are that mean to you, maybe you did something to them and you just don’t realize it. Maybe this is God testing you. Maybe you weren’t nice enough….”

Based on the advice I got, I learned to internalize the bullying I got. I couldn’t trust people for a long time – and still can’t fully trust people. I lived for many years waiting for friends and family members to drop the charade and tell me they were joking all along and I was a loser for thinking they actually loved me or cared about me. I imagined that all praise was sarcastic, that I was actually doing a terrible job at work or school. I still work twice as hard as I think I need to just to show that I deserve to be employed. As an overachiever by nature, I tend to work hard and demand perfection of myself, but as a kid who was bullied and teased over every perceived social fault, perfection isn’t good enough. I also tend to inflate my mistakes and faults as issues deserving of termination from my job, divorce, exile…. My best is never good enough, and even my most minor mistakes are deserving of the harshest punishments.

Baggaley notes that many bullied individuals attain some sort of silver lining as a result of their bullying (a sense of inner strength or self-reliance, cultivated empathy, and the like), and I can certainly see my self-reliance as being over-developed in response to growing up without a strong social network, but that silver lining comes with a price: it’s self-reliance to the exclusion of any trust in a social network, and inner strength that inherently rejects any sense of external support or help.

At 34, I’m still learning how to overcome the trauma of my childhood tormentors. While I consider myself lucky to have made it out of childhood alive, despite numerous suicide attempts as a teenager, I wouldn’t wish this kind of life on anyone. I’m an adult now, and I can match wits with anyone, but I still have that weird kid inside of me bracing for the impact of teasing and abuse. I’m still unsure of where I fit in, or if I even should fit in. I don’t know that I have a place in society and I’m still only partially able to navigate social situations, and then only because I had training at work on how to network and talk to people.

I’m heartened by the recent focus on bullying and the attempts to study and prevent it. There are many more stories of kids who didn’t even make it out of their teen years alive because the bullying was so severe and pervasive. To an extent, you can’t change human nature, and there will always be bullies. But I still think that we as a society can respond and say that we won’t accept abuse as just another hazard of childhood. Kids need to learn how to navigate challenges and failures, to be sure – putting your kids in the proverbial bubble wrap does more harm than good – but we can and should draw lines as to what’s acceptable and what’s not. At the very least, we should be giving kids the tools to deal with their bullying before they internalize the abuse and start bullying themselves.

I think part of the problem, which was addressed in the comments to the article, is that the term “bullying” is such a broad term as to be unhelpful and non-descript. What kind of bullying constitutes abuse? What is just normal teasing? At what point do you stop being just a group of kids trying to figure out your place in the social order and start being abusers? If we try to approach the problem by casting too wide of a net, we end up with stupid Zero-Tolerance policies that get kids expelled or sent to jail for benign acts (like biting your pop-tart into a “gun” shape, or hugging a classmate). If we cast too narrow of a net (say only focusing on physical bullying), we run the risk of excluding other forms of abuse that are damaging, like psychological torment.

Maintaining a dialogue to come to a resolution is important and a key to finding a solution to a problem that’s difficult to pinpoint. In the meantime, as a parent, I see my job as addressing it head on and teaching my daughter to deal with hurtful words that are given to her, to de-escalate situations, to resolve conflict – and most importantly, to not be a jerk to people. One of the most important things we can do as parents is to teach our kids conflict resolution and problem solving so they can learn to deal with difficult situations in general. I don’t hold a rosy view that one day we’ll never have bullying (because frankly, it’s part of human nature, and I don’t see a swift turnaround on that any time soon), but at least we can pass tools along to start changing mindsets.