I am a good person. At least that’s what I tell myself on a regular basis. I make a few mistakes now and then, but on the whole, I’m a good person. I pay my taxes, I never litter, I’m polite to baristas and sales clerks, I don’t yell at my children, and I recycle.
Much of my identity, security, and sense of belonging is wrapped up in being a “good person”. If I am a good person, then people will love me, the system will protect me, and I won’t go to hell. If I am a good person, then the world feels orderly and safe.
The value I place in being a good person is so deeply rooted in my psyche that the minute I fear I’m being found out to be NOT a good person, I get panicky. My throat starts to close, the blood rushes to my head, and my flight/fight/freeze impulses send my nervous system into spasms.
Why? Because I grew up knowing that being good was the way to gain approval and affection from my parents, friends, and school teachers, and that made me feel safe. And I grew up with the deeply held belief that not being good would result in abandonment and condemnation to hell. While, deep down, I might have an underlying fear that I am NOT good, I’ve been able to sufficiently stuff down that fear and convince myself that goodness is my prevailing quality.
Good = belonging, safety, affection, and ease. Bad = abandonment, disapproval, insecurity, and eternal punishment.
Good people don’t harm other people. At least that’s the tape that’s been running on endless loop in my subconscious for over five decades. BAD people harm other people, but that’s not me, so I don’t have to worry about it.
La la la la la – fingers in my ears as you try to accuse me of doing harm – I’m not listening because I AM A GOOD PERSON! It must have been some OTHER person who did the harm because it was NOT ME! What you’re saying is so far from my definition of self that it feels DANGEROUS to receive the information, so I REFUSE! Please go away before my carefully constructed self image crumbles at my ankles.
Perhaps you’ve had the same reaction when someone accuses you of doing harm? (Please tell me I’m not alone!)
But… sadly, there’s this universal truth that my amygdala has a hard time processing… we ALL do harm sometimes.
We do harm for many reasons: we’ve been harmed by someone else; we suddenly felt unsafe and we reacted out of a desperate need for safety; we don’t know how to process our anger or shame in healthy ways; we’ve been socially conditioned not to recognize certain behaviour as harmful; we’ve got blindspots and biases that keep us from seeing the other person as fully human; our mental illness causes irrational or dangerous behaviour; or we feel trapped in a position in which we have to defend or protect ourselves.
Even the most well-intentioned, emotionally healthy people do harm sometimes. It’s inevitable. The best we can do is to learn to process the information about the harm we’ve done without falling apart or lashing out and thereby increasing the harm.
Recently, I’ve had to receive that kind of information from several people. First there were two separate people who, a day apart, let me know that I’d harmed them by comments I’d made to them (one recent and one several months earlier). My first reaction, in both cases, was to become defensive, claim innocence, or dismiss them for being so sensitive. But, because I care about both of these people and want to maintain relationships with them, I chose to slow down and shift out of “reaction” into “response”. I listened to what they had to say and realized that, in both cases, it was true that I’d said hurtful things because, at the time, I was in emotional pain and was trying to deflect that pain. (Pain is contagious – when we try to deflect it, we usually project it onto others and then we both feel pain.) I apologized and took responsibility for harm done.
Then, when I came home from my recent trip, I had to hear from my daughters that I had harmed them with some of the choices I’ve made recently. Again, I noticed the reactivity bubbling up in me and I was tempted to become passive aggressive and let them know how hard it is to be a single mom (while running a business that feeds them), how under-appreciated I often feel, etc. But, again, I knew that the reaction would do more harm and they would be less inclined to be honest with me in the future which would damage our relationship. Once again, I slowed down, took a few deep breaths, apologized and asked how I can support them better in the future.
I know that I’m not alone in being reactive when it comes to acknowledging harm that I’ve done. I see the same thing played out again and again, especially in tough conversations when people are being confronted with information about how their biases and blindspots may have caused harm. That’s why, for example, the term “white fragility” has become so common (and also male fragility, etc.). None of us likes to be told that our behaviour is “racist”, “sexist”, etc., and yet we all have biases that were formed in us at a young age and those biases make us blind to the impact of some of our behaviour.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to help people (myself included) better receive information about harm we’ve done, and how we can create environments where people can process that information (without becoming destructive) and then move forward toward repair, reconciliation and/or redemption. It takes self-reflection, self-forgiveness, and some emotional maturity to be able to receive that kind of information. It also takes community support and at least one person who believes in our capacity for goodness even when we’ve done harm. It’s hard to recover alone – we need people who can see our potential when we can’t.
Shame recovery is rarely a solo act – it happens best in relationship.
Not long ago, I found myself in a series of intense and deeply personal conversations with a man who has come to the awareness that he has done harm to women. There was little in his social conditioning that supported healthy masculinity, so he’d been blind to the harm he’d caused before it was pointed out to him. In the past year, this man has moved through various phases in this awareness – denial, shame, self-loathing, extensive therapy and personal growth, attempts at repair, despair, etc.
I am profoundly grateful for the openhearted conversations I had with this man. Normally, I would avoid a conversation like that because I’d be triggered by it and the harm that has been caused to me by men would get in the way of my ability to hear him and extend grace to him. This time it was different, though. Surprisingly, hearing him speak with honesty and without guardedness about his shame, pain, confusion, and desire to be a better man offered me some healing for the harm that’s been done to me in the past. One of the last things I said to him was “you’ve allowed me to see the humanity behind the harm”. I also said “I will hold onto the belief that redemption is possible for you even when you don’t believe it yourself.” (Note: That man has given permission for this portion of his story to be shared.)
I can’t help but wonder… are we so different, him and I? Yes, the magnitude of the harm may be different, but at the heart of it, aren’t we the same? Given the same set of conditions, the same set of unhealthy gender expectations and cultural shaping, isn’t it possible that I might have done the same harm he has done? (We discovered many threads of similarities, for example, in the way we think and the way we process information about the world, so it seems we might respond similarly to the same set of circumstances.)
What has left me troubled after these conversations is that, despite the work he has done to take responsibility for his actions and learn how to be a better man, this man feels abandoned by those who once cared for him and he can find no place to turn for the kind of community support that might help restore him to goodness. He was surprised by my kindness because he’s learned not to expect kindness from anyone and questions whether he’s worthy of it.
Yes, we need to hold people accountable for harm they have done, and yes, our first responsibility as a society is to stand up for and protect victims of harm, but… we also need to build into our culture better ways to support the restitution and redemption of those who perpetuated the harm (if they are willing to do the hard work of restitution), especially when the culture is partially to blame for how they came to be who they are. To simply see them as “perpetrators” is to discard them and to take no responsibility for the re-shaping of them. Ultimately, this response will only result in more harm being done.
Those left to wallow in their own shame, without the resources to heal and recover from that shame, become increasingly destructive to themselves and to others.
After the harm I caused those two friends and my daughters, I was able to be restored to my goodness. Their forgiveness and willingness to accept the repairs I offered helped me let go of shame and the relationships survived. That’s how restitution works – it restores us, heals us, and allows us to believe in ourselves and connect with each other again.
Restitution happens in community.
In some cultures, restitution is built into the way that they address conflict and injustice. Among the Stó:lō people (an Indigenous nation in Canada), for example, the word used instead of “justice” is Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good” (from: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada). When someone does harm, that person is asked to participate in a community circle and to prepare themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually to receive what is offered there. The purpose of this healing and peace building circle is to restore balance in the person, to help them see the harm they’ve done, and to reconnect them to the relationships that sustain them and hold them accountable.
Perhaps if we were to write a new cultural narrative – one in which restoration and repair are valued over judgement and punishment, and in which community is valued over capitalism – we might be more equipped to find healing when harm is done and to “move people toward the good”. Perhaps if we knew that our communities would gather around us rather than abandon us when we do harm we’d be better equipped to receive information about how we’ve harmed people.
Instead, we tend to discard people, sending them off to prison, rejecting them from our communities, or punishing them on social media. Instead of holding them accountable and then creating community support in which they can make repairs and be restored to goodness, we remind them again and again of the harm they’ve caused, sending them further and further into shame.
We need a cultural revolution that returns us to community. We need more reconciliation circles and fewer courtrooms. We need more focus on repair and less on punishment.
We need to move people toward the good.
Walk into any mainstream bookstore and you’ll find shelves full of books on self-care, but where are the books on community care? Who’s teaching us how to support each other and not abandon each other?
We have movements like #metoo and #timesup that call out toxic masculinity (and that’s a good thing – don’t get me wrong), but where are the circles for accountability, repair, and restitution? Who’s helping perpetrators face the truth of the harm they’ve done so that they can make repairs and be restored to their communities?
I don’t think we need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to growing the containers that can hold space for restitution, reconciliation, and harm reduction – we simply need to seek out and amplify the practices that were once part of our communal cultures, before we became so individualistic and driven by capitalism. In many Indigenous communities the world over, for example, practices already exist that can help us find a way forward. (If you know of such practices, I welcome you to share them in the comments.)
Perhaps if we look hard enough, we’ll uncover what we all need in order to see the harm we do with more clear eyes and to hold space for it in ourselves and in others so that restoration can happen.
We talk about this (and many other aspects of holding space) in my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next online program starts in October. The next in-person training is in B.C., Canada in September.