What to Make of Remorse and Self-Blame
How to be kinder to yourself
You are the only person you can’t hide from. You will find yourself in the silence of your bedroom, the creep of your shadow, the backseat of your car, and the whispers of the trees in your neighborhood. You are your own worst critic and your most intimate observer.
Remorse and self-punishment are addictive, as many negative behaviors are—the more we indulge in feelings directed towards ourselves, the narrower our focus becomes. The more we pity or hate ourselves, the more we believe we deserve it. Sometimes, it can feel like the only way to compensate for our failures. Other times, blaming ourselves is easier than communicating to others what we're feeling inside.
This is what happens when we don't accept our imperfections.
The three selves
Psychology says that we can parse ourselves into three different perceptions of self: the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self.
The actual self is who you are in reality.
The ideal self is who you believe you COULD be; it represents hopes and wishes. The ought self is who you feel you SHOULD be; it represents obligation and duty. The actual self aspires to be aligned with at least one of these two selves.
What is remorse? Remorse is the unappeasable inner critic that reminds us of how far away we are from our ideals and expectations. When we fall short of our ideals, remorse reminds us that we’re not worthy of being rewarded. When we don’t meet what is expected of us, remorse shames us.
When we are imperfect—that is, when we make mistakes—remorse wakes up from a deathless sleep to let us know that we are not deserving of love or forgiveness because we are not excellent enough.
The origin of sympathy
The invisible hand first appeared in Adam Smith’s lectures on astronomy, then in The Theory on Moral Sentiments, then once more in The Wealth of Nations. Although the context differed among these three different studies, the nature of this invisible influence is similar: phenomena that emerge not from design but nevertheless accomplish something that seems intentional as a result of an aggregate of individual actions.
In a free market economy, the invisible hand is a metaphor for how self-interested individuals operate through a system of mutual interdependence; a healthy equilibrium can be established without government or other interventions forcing it into unnatural patterns.
One can argue that the economy of emotions works the same, that the pushes and pulls of the human heart have created a system of morality formed out of individual passions with no orchestrated deliberation. One man’s words and actions are another man’s reflections.
This is the genesis of sympathy. The day we realize that we are not the center of the universe is the day we start caring about other people's feelings. It’s the day we partake in the economy of compassion and morality. We feel good when we make other people feel good, we feel guilty when we hurt them.
It feels like it’s easier to show sympathy for others than ourselves
The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with a simple observation: we all enjoy making other people happy.
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, but the pleasure of seeing it.
Our moral compasses are kept by a mutual sympathy the runs deep in a society:
Nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast.
Smith’s most famous innovation in moral philosophy is the ‘impartial spectator’, who we imagine to be watching over us when we are required to be moral. Although invisible, we collectively agree that there is Right versus Wrong, that we should avoid doing things that we would not like to be done onto ourselves. We can imagine what an omniscient observer might think of our conduct. We collectively look up to a transcendent figure who embodies our conscience.
“The safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear.” — Voltaire
This is the ‘they’ we refer to when we point broadly at society. This is the system of unspoken rules we operate in. This is the ‘God’ we speak of when we say that ‘God is watching’. This is the quiet truth that sits in the kernel of every person’s heart. It’s the needle that points firmly at a True North. It’s the judging eye that stares at us so harshly that we can not find peace even in our sleep when we know that we’ve done something wrong.
So, it is taken for granted that we should show compassion to those around us.
But why is it so hard to do the same for the person you’ve known the longest, someone you have to spend the rest of your life with? Why is it so hard to see the best in that person, someone who has managed to survive the worst and has carried you to your best? Why is it so hard to encourage that person when they benefit the most from your successes? Why is it so hard to love yourself and treat yourself with such kindness, the person who needs it the most?
Lend yourself some grace
Nothing feels worse than the slow, acidic corrosion of self-hate. A contemptuous squeeze that seeks to suffocate the light out of your eyes, a guilt-fuelled flame that flicks at the bottom of your sternum as if it were a glass pipe about to crack. You don’t deserve to be happy is what you hear bouncing around the walls of your head, except instead of each reverberation getting lighter, it only gets angrier.
Deserve. Such a heavy, fatigued word. Who deserves what? After all, you didn’t ask to be born. No one did. Whose fault is it that you aren’t feeling your best? Who should shoulder the weight of blame for your miseries?
The antidote to the vicious cycle of deservingness is grace: offer forgiveness even when the person receiving it doesn’t seem to deserve it. Grace goes against the instincts of humanity—subscribing to covenants and karma, following cause and effect, and earning what we get. Grace is different because it is unmerited; in fact, it is unconditional and given precisely to those who do not deserve it. It defies reason and logic. Grace interrupts the consequences of your actions and gives you a second chance when you need it the most.
Want the best for yourself
So, here we are: broken people who are excruciatingly aware of our own brokenness. We are ashamed of our inadequacies and doubtful of our value. Yet, we know for sure that we enjoy making others happy. So, we work diligently and altruistically to make sure others suffer less, even if we’re not able to extend the same gentleness to ourselves.
But every person is deeply flawed in their own ways. We all fall short of our ideals and expectations. Being imperfect is the great equalizer—from kings to peasants, the prominent to the unheralded, the happy to the miserable. What makes you think you’re an exception? If you are just as imperfect as everyone else, do you not deserve the same touch of forgiveness?
Instead, you should show appreciation for yourself the same way you would for someone you love and value. And when you make a mistake, you should forgive yourself as much as you forgive them. Why? Because you are important to others, as much as to yourself.
You take up an irreplaceable spot in the world and play a vital role in the unfolding of the future. You don’t exist in a vacuum, you are a node in a network of people who think, feel, and are moral. You owe it to yourself (and those close to you) to want the best for yourself.
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