Some say everything that’s wrong with the world can be summed up by one problem: people who have no remorse or regret for doing something bad. It’s an attitude of “Yeah, I did something bad, but it doesn’t matter, I don’t care”. The answer often proposed is that these uncaring people need to be punished or disciplined so they will feel remorse, regret, or guilt because that’s the only way they will change.
For me, remorse, regret, and guilt carry a kind of self-blaming. It takes me into feeling “bad”. My surface self says it’s good for me to feel bad because until I do, I won’t be good. When I apply this punishment-based view to myself, I find it takes me nowhere good. Actually I begin to care even less about being good.
Recently I talked with my mother on the phone. At the beginning of the call, I was not sympathetic or accepting when she said she was feeling sick. My surface self/ego jumped to labeling her as “a victim who goes on and on” because “she’s always feeling sick or moaning about some discomfort, weakness, or injustice.”
About five minutes after this unpleasant, conflict-ridden call ended, I realized I had done the “bad” thing I’ve been writing about in this book: I used word-tools to label her as a victim, and then continued the interaction as if that label were the whole story of what she is. It affected the way I spoke to her, including my tone of voice and words, which then affected the way she spoke back to me.
During the call, I remember thinking my mother was the cause of the unpleasantness we were experiencing – I was blaming her for what I had started. Soon after the call, I realized that my labeling her a victim is what actually set the stage for the unpleasant interaction. When I placed that label in my mind as if it were the truth about my mother, I closed out the possibility of a connection between two human beings. I started a back and forth between two word-tool warriors. All my talking was being filtered through the label victim; and all hers was in response to my blameful label. I had restrained my mother and our conversation by holding that one word victim in my mind.
So I called my mom back and apologized for jumping to label her as a victim the way I did. She was crying a bit but thanked me for calling.
After that, I realized that if I could go back to the beginning of our call, I would have liked to have said, “I’m sorry to hear you are feeling sick. I hope you feel better soon.” A couple of days later, I called to tell her that. We talked for two hours. I felt grateful to hear my mother talk about family history, even though it was filled with her own judgments, labeling, sorrows, and life difficulties. When the victim label crept up in my mind, it was as if I said back to it: I know how limited you are; I know you are not the truth; and I am aware of the value of what I don’t know. Let me be open and actually hear this person rather than close her out.
Did I feel remorse, regret, or guilt about labeling my mother as a victim? Yes, I felt just a bit of self-blame creep in. But mostly I felt the fullness of a desire to tell her what I would’ve liked to have said. Mostly I felt a sense of Connectivity with her and the world around me, a no-guilt sense that invites healing without self-punishment.
What if I had walked away from the first call thinking something else: I know I hurt her, and I know that my labeling created conflict during our call. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.
Wouldn’t some kind of self-blaming help me get back on track? Wouldn’t self-blaming and punishment have made up for the hurt I had caused? Isn’t self-punishment a good and just thing to do?
My experience says no. I’ve found self-blame and self-punishment to be a demotivator; it’s not something that invites me to do something different. Sure, making myself feel bad can push me into doing something different in this minute. But that pushed reorientation doesn’t last long term. Dragging myself down never helps with allowing for the kind of growth that is foundational to a lasting reorientation.
And yet, I grew up believing that self-blame and punishment were the right things to do to compensate for a wrong.
But if I look a little deeper, I think I believed this only because it was prevalent in society and because I saw it as a part of being logical, moral, and reasonable. All of this was rooted outside me, even though I had adopted and brought it inside. It’s as if I placed it inside of me with quotes around it: Okay, I’ll go along with this. It must be true since so many people approve of it. Isn’t compensating for a wrong a necessary part of justice, logic, and wanting to be moral?
Although I went along with this, somehow it seemed there was something wrong about self-blame and punishment. I thought and felt it only in word-tool format . . . it seemed logical and moral. It fit my in-the-head judgment structures. But deep down, and in a whole-self way, I never sensed it as constructive or as an idea that was worthy of embracing.
Through Connectivity, I’ve found an alternative to blame and punishment. Connectivity, an awareness of endless interrelatedness, invites me, without any blame or punishment to examine what I did, and to possibly envision a change in what I’ll do next.
Blame and punishment are disconnectors. They rest on the belief that I am separate, as if in a vacuum. They hold the ideas that “me in a vacuum” should compensate for hurt I caused “someone else who also operates in a vacuum”.
Connectivity on the other hand flows from feeling affinity for all that is real, because I am inextricably with it. There is no “me in a vacuum” just as there is no “you in a vacuum”. As I began to sense Connectivity, I realized that there simply isn’t an only-me; only-me isn’t real: If there is only me, there is no me.
Yet blame and punishment rely on beliefs of only-me. If I am a separate only-me and my mom is another separate only-me, then it fits to call her a victim and it fits to blame myself for that afterwards. The judging, blaming, and punishing never stops.
Related to widespread use of self-blame and punishment, I am grateful for the words of psychotherapist Karen Horney as she discusses the concept of a disciplinary inner control system:
But there is a wide divergence of opinion about the desirability or necessity of a disciplinary inner control system for the sake of insuring moral conduct.
This hit home for me because I had never heard anyone use these words to question the kind of judging, blaming, and punishment that causes so much suffering and unhappiness. The constraining judgmental monitoring of my disciplinary inner control system has never encouraged me to “do the right thing”. It only encouraged a should followed by blame and punishment.
Even if I complied with the should, I would do it with a resentful rebellion that was hidden so deeply that no one could see it, including myself.
Later, in the same section of her book, Neurosis and Human Growth, Horney continues with the following:
There is no doubt that such disciplinary methods can succeed in suppressing undesirable factors, but there is also no doubt that they are injurious to our growth. We do not need them because we see a better possibility of dealing with destructive forces in ourselves: that of actually outgrowing them.
This may provide an answer for those of us who’ve ingrained the idea that blame and punishment are necessary functions in our world. Allowing ourselves to grow is effective. Pushing ourselves into a should through use of a disciplinary inner control system is not only ineffective but damaging.
For me, outgrowing destructive forces began naturally once I experienced approaches to living that were not dominated by word-tools. I sensed that I am more connected than separate. I realized that the this-not-that limiting nature of word-tools doesn’t support using them to blame and punish. I saw that words are merely tags/labels, not the truth-tellers I had thought them to be. Experiencing Connectivity rather than the illusion of separateness, in light of the limited nature of words, set me free to grow, including outgrowing any destructive forces that may exist.
The truth is not that my mother is a victim or that I am abusive and hurtful when I approach her that way. It’s that because we are all linked, tied, connected in so many ways – and realizing that word-
tools make this Connectivity difficult to see – I want to, not have to, contribute to allowing myself, my mother, and everyone I encounter to grow (and outgrow) as the natural Beings we all are.
Blame, punishment, and disciplinary inner control are replaced by growing that is allowed and nurtured by we interconnected Beings of life.