Owning up to our own less-than-ideal behavior does not have to mean condemning ourselves as terrible, incompetent or evil.
We can acknowledge times when our behavior has fallen short of our own standards, or when our behavior has been harmful to someone else, or when our behavior wasn’t appropriate to the situation for whatever reason…without turning it into an opportunity to fundamentally condemn ourselves as people.
If we are to build healthy, realistic self-esteem, it is VITAL that we learn to make this distinction.
The world is not as straightforward as, “good people do good, competent things; bad people do evil, incompetent things.”
There are absolutely times when people whose hearts are in the right place do things that have negative, destructive consequences.
Just like there are absolutely times when people most of us would consider “bad” have behaved in ways that, for whatever reason, happened to be exactly what the situation called for at the time— that is, when “bad” people have done “good” things.
In our culture, we have this problem: we think we are our behavior, all the time, every time.
We fall into the trap of thinking that a person’s outward behavior is a concise, accurate summation of who that person is— how “good” or “bad” they are, how competent or incompetent they are.
It’s just not that simple.
People are complex.
Behavior is what psychologists call “overdetermined”— that is, there are a lot of factors that go into why we say what we say and do what we do.
We very much need to keep this in mind…especially when it comes to evaluating ourselves and our own behavior.
Because there absolutely are times when we’ve dropped the ball. All of us.
There absolutely are times when we’ve said the wrong thing at the wrong time. That’s happened to literally everybody.
There absolutely are times when our behavior, no matter how well-intentioned, had negative consequences. It’s happened to everyone at some point in our lifetimes, and it will likely happen again.
If we go around judging ourselves— our worth, our efficacy, our basic competence, our basic morality— based on those moments in our lives when we’ve said or done the objectively wrong thing, we’re going to form an impression of ourselves that is not only unnecessarily negative…it’s probably highly distorted.
“Good” people, in my book, own their behavior— even when its consequences have been negative.
But the only way we can learn to consistently own our behavior is if we get away from this idea that “good” behavior equals “good” people, and “bad” behavior equals “bad” people.
If we hang on to that rigid mindset of good and bad…then what incentive does anybody have to own up to their own less-than-ideal behavior?
They won’t do it.
They’ll try to duck and dodge, deny and disown.
They’ll try to hide their mistakes rather than living up to them and fixing them.
We can’t create a world where the standard reaction to “bad” or ineffective behavior is to run away from it.
But if we’re going to create a world where people feel safe and able to live up to their behavior, we need to embrace this idea that “good,” effective people can sometimes do “bad,” ineffective things.
We ned to take the “sting” and stigma away from making mistakes.
We need to acknowledge that people can change…if we give them the opportunity to.
And we need to embrace the fact that, whatever happened in the past, we can’t change it by running away from it…we can only change it by acknowledging it, by acknowledging its real world effects (even the painful ones!), and moving forward with eyes wide open.
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