Many of you have read the article I Promise It’s Not ‘Lame’ To Ask A Woman for Permission, where I tell the story of how six years ago my insensitivity and ignorance left a woman feeling violated and hurt.
What I haven’t told you is shortly after writing the article, I made the same mistake by sending the article to that same woman.
It was dumb and embarrassing, because the whole point of the article was to show what I learned. In sending it to her I showed the same kind of insensitivity and naive thinking that caused the problem in the first place.
I didn’t realize the impact of re-opening that story, and I also didn’t see how what I was doing was really just a self-serving attempt at looking good.
Here’s what she wrote back to me.*
*I decided to print her words because I wanted her words to be present, however I didn’t contact her to get specific permission for several reasons — 1. I saw the request as another invasion of her space and 2. After sending me this message she requested no further contact.
If you have thoughts/feelings about this decision, I welcome them, feel free to email me feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dave, congratulations on your journey of self discovery, allow me to give you some deeper insight. While I appreciate that you have your own view of the events, what nerve you have to write about it and send it to me, as if my knowledge of the events would change due to your rationalization.
Reality is that if I had the wise woman inside of me then as I do now she would have told you where you could go stick it. I did not and you became a lesson of caution, so thank you.
Can you really imagine that I wanted to talk with you after feeling so violated? No I did not, I wanted somehow make the situation bearable so I endured the conversation for your personal growth.
But I don’t have to endure this. From my view you are a narcissistic man that uses status, charm and manipulation to get what he wants out of women (or people in general I’m sure) yet you play so coy. Move on Dave, there’s nothing for you here.
Ouch. Needless to say, reading that was hard.
The hardest thing (besides seeing the ways she was right) was realizing that I can never truly make up for the pain I’ve caused her, or any others in the past.
The thought that I’ll always be “that guy” in her mind is hard to swallow, but it’s very probable. Am I ultimately defined by what others think of me? Maybe not, but I am impacted, and the fact that my actions have caused other people pain is undeniable.
Even if she wrote to me — Dave, I feel nothing but love for you — thank you for all your hard work in righting this wrong — I still would not be exonerated. That’s not how it works. I’ll always be on the hook for those actions, as uncomfortable as that thought is.
So that begs the question — is there any solace for me? Is there any way we can be with the fact that we hurt other people and still live a well-adjusted life? I think there is, but the solution isn’t to justify our position, defend ourselves or think we can ever fully make amends — it’s to just feel the pain.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to right the wrongs, we absolutely should — but at the end of the day the pain of our actions will still be there, and there’s nothing for us to do but simply feel it.
Here’s another example.
The Pain of Being Wasteful
Last week I got a chance to spend some time with Rob Greenfield, an inspiring speaker and activist on sustainability and environmental awareness. He is also someone who has radically changed his life to lessen his impact on Earth’s resources.
After seeing how he lives I was left with some understandable guilt. Rob conserves everything from water to electricity to fuel, and he lives a life that produces a tiny fraction of the trash produced by most Americans.
As I returned to my normal life I vowed to make some changes, but I was also faced with the reality that even if I did everything I could, I would still be wasting some resources.
Even someone like Rob, who has gone far beyond most of us in his efforts to conserve resources, still flies in planes occasionally, still wastes water, and still produces some trash. How could I both do my best and accept that I’m not perfect? My answer was the same as before. Don’t try and rationalize it, defend yourself or justify it — just feel the pain of being wasteful.
What we may not see until after we accept our feelings of guilt is that pain can also be a positive influence. For example, after meeting with Rob I attended TEDxSanDiego and was shocked by how much trash the event created. Endless samples wrapped in plastic, single-use cups and little knick-knacks that would probably get thrown away at the end of the day were just a few examples of the waste I participated in.
That’s right — I participated in it, and it hurt. It was because I felt the pain of throwing out plastic wrapper after plastic wrapper that I decided if we run TEDxCardiffbytheSea next year, we will do our best to make it a zero waste event. That felt inspiring, and it was made possible because I felt the pain of being wasteful.
Shame vs. Guilt
Now you might be thinking — but isn’t feeling too much guilt bad for you? Wouldn’t that cause a lot of unnecessary stress?
This is where a distinction between shame and guilt helps. While there are different definitions out there, I find Brené Brown’s work useful. She says this in her TED talk titled “Listening To Shame”. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.”
Shame is guilt taken personally. It’s also a common way we avoid taking responsibility for what we’ve done, because in beating ourselves up for being a “bad person” we disconnect from the object of our transgressions. We are so caught up in taking things personally that we don’t have room for things like empathy and compassion.
The point of me saying “just feel the pain” isn’t to send people spiraling into depression (that would be shame), it’s to have us see that guilt is not the end of the world, and it’s a natural byproduct of being a flawed human. It’s our corrective mechanism, and it shows us how we can change for the better.
In light of the current stories that are being shared in the #metoo campaign, it’s tempting to avoid the pain of seeing how your actions (or lack of action) has caused other people pain.
Feel that. It’s alright. Walk toward the gun. Notice that you’re still alive, and notice that it’s good for you to acknowledge that you aren’t perfect. We will never change until we first accept the parts of ourselves that need changing.