This is Chapter Two of my book-in-process, Eight Minutes of Advice. If you have not read the the Prologue and Chapter One, click here. At the bottom of that post is a link back to this page.
There is nothing to be ashamed of. You are perfectly imperfect.
Curiously, although I penned those words, I often struggle to achieve that state of self-assurance. It makes me wonder if this Message was intended for my ears, first and foremost. Perfectionists do not necessarily demand precision in all areas of their lives. I certainly don’t. However, I am plagued with a very deep rooted expectation to remain impeccable in a handful of circumstances. The struggle to achieve perfection can distort one’s honesty to self which makes it difficult to own one’s mistakes (another of the Messages).
In 1997 I purchased my first home computer. I took it out of the box, plugged it in and loaded the software. The modem chirped and screeched for what seemed an outrageously long time. Eventually, I reached that place I had never voyaged – cyberspace. I wasn’t exactly sure how to use a browser. But, I eventually resolved that I could type a word into the search box and receive a list of possible sites to visit.
For a few moments, I sat contemplating what I might find interesting to investigate. Since I was raising sheep at the time, I decided to explore the ovine realm. The second link that I clicked sent me to a pornographic site of men and sheep doing, well, things that clearly crossed the species boundary a bit too far. I gasped. First, because I had never seen such images. But mostly, I was overcome with fear that someone would learn I had been to the site. I was weakened by worry. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled the plug on the machine and contemplated my options.
Let’s understand that the sexual nature of the incident was irrelevant on a personal level. I was thirty-seven years old. There was also little chance that anyone would snoop on me. I lived alone, in the middle of nowhere. Nobody had a key to my house. Most people probably couldn’t even find my property. Yet the thought that flashed through my brain was, “what if I die and someone examines the browser history? What would they think of me?”
Oddly, it never dawned on me that I would be dead and most probably in a realm where it didn’t really matter that I had ended up on a porn site either by mistake or intentionally. Rather, I had just one thought; I do not want people to think badly of me.
In deliberating my childhood, I often describe it as having been perfectly dysfunctional. The world in which I lived appeared to be unblemished. Yet, it was awkwardly debilitated. I lived in a seemingly idyllic home. We awoke each day to laundered clothing, a high quality school lunch, a kiss good-bye and a ride to school when it was raining or cold. We came home to a clean house, help with homework, and delicious home-cooked meals. A pink box of Mr. Bubble was available to enhance our evening bath, and we could rely upon a ritual tucking-in and kiss good night.
My father arrived home from work every day at the same time and interacted with his children. We learned important lessons like the fact that life isn’t always fair and that sticks and stone might break one’s bones, but names can never hurt you. Good grades were expected but were rarely considered more valuable than the development of common sense. My mother was a Girl Scout leader and never missed a recital or sporting event.
While the world in which we lived seemed immaculate, there was a ‘situation’ that everyone knew but nobody spoke of. Maintaining outward appearances was required to secure the secret. Although we never received direct instructions on how to protect the family’s unrest, the message was understood.
My mother was an alcoholic. Still, she was an exceptional mother – most of the time. I suppose, based on the arguing, she wasn’t as outstanding a spouse as she was a mom. She worked very hard at keeping up appearances. The towels in the bathroom were always fresh. The carpeting was always vacuumed. My father’s shirts were ironed to his standards. Dinner was created from high quality ingredients, just like my father preferred. But, if the lima beans were hard, he would tell her and she would cry. Emotions were rather tenuous.
On occasion my mother would be lying on the floor in a drunken stupor when I came home from school. That meant that I could not safely bring home a friend without prior notice. Despite that, if I needed to take cookies to a school event, my mom’s treats were the ones every kid wanted. One time, at an away swim meet, Wendy Young told me, “Your mom is the greatest! She is always here to cheer for us!” She was right. And, I never saw her mother at any of our events – home or away. Wendy was one of the cool girls. That reduced the chance that she might want to come over to my house after school. Consequently, I felt safe acknowledging her compliments about my mother.
As an adult I have been plagued with the notion that the house must be pristine or nobody should come inside. Instead of simply accepting that I am not a perfect housekeeper – how could I be with a houseful of dogs – I prefer to withhold from inviting someone into my house. Still, when I think of homes that I have visited, very few were ready for a Better Homes & Garden’s photo shoot and I didn’t care. I am left to wonder if I keep people at a distance to reduce the chance they might see my blemishes?
As I try to overcome my ‘issues’, I can say that I am a work in progress. It was only when sitting down to write this book, specifically on this Message, that I contemplated how deeply my childhood continues to influence my behavior. Presenting a clean home was the way to hide all the naughty bits of real life that nobody should ever see. I suppose it is a way to avoid feeling ashamed of my deficiencies and defects.
This Message suggests that now, and back in my childhood, there was nothing to be ashamed of. We must remember that in the 1960’s, when I was a kid with an alcoholic mother and a father who tried to yell her out of her condition, he didn’t know any better and I was a little girl. I couldn’t fix the trouble, and I wasn’t the reason for the problem. I remember coming back from my year abroad as a foreign exchange student. I said something to upset my mother and my father took me aside and scolded me for potentially impelling her to take up the bottle, again. What a horrifying accusation. If you are thinking, “how shameful of him to do that to his child,” remember the Message. Nobody is flawless, not even fathers.
While it took me into my thirties until I was able to appreciate that my parents were just human beings, I got there. I think some people never do. My father did the best he could do with what he had available at the time. My mother did the best that she could do. If she were battling her addiction today, she would have access to many more opportunities to overcome her demons. Today, people tend to understand chemical dependency and treat individuals with more compassion than my mother experienced nearly sixty years ago.
Let’s be realistic, there will always be a condition that is new and scary that pushes people to unfairly impose shame upon others. Nobody is perfect. Yet, experiencing shame is often a motivation that causes us to strive for perfection.
It’s peculiar that shame and guilt are often superimposed or confused. To be your best self you need to be accountable for your own actions. There is no shame in making a mistake, but in so doing you may also be guilty of breaking the law. It’s important to distinguish guilt from shame because while guilt is a reasonable condition that identifies accountability, shame is usually associated with malicious intent.
As a professional dog trainer, I began my authoring career writing about – you guessed it – dogs. Interestingly, shame has been a topic more than once in articles and books I have published in that genre.
“Whaaaat did yooooooou dooooo?” The woman speaks in humiliating tones when communicating with her puppy. She arrived home to a shredded cushion and toilet paper strewn about the house. She experiences an intense desire to chastise him and set him straight. In response, the wee dog pins back his ears, lowers his head, tucks his tail, and he may even squirt a little urine.
Let us all please appreciate that the pup has absolutely no clue what he did wrong. After all, if his owner left him alone all day long is it so unreasonable to think that he might interact with objects in his environment?
“Buddy! Why did you chew this cushion?” She shakes her finger in cadence with each syllable of the sentence as she throws a dagger of disgrace his way. The little dog lowers his belly and slinks out of the room. The woman feels fulfilled in achieving her mission to make the pup feel badly for his naughty deeds.
Many people believe that the puppy’s behavior is evidence that he concedes he was wrong and accepts the blame. It is my belief that the pup’s timid behavior is actually his way of saying, “I recognize and accept your rank over me. I mean you no disrespect. Please do not banish me.”
My experience tells me that canine submission is a display of reverence and loyalty to the pack leader. As a member of a society in which the pup needs to belong to survive, he is hardwired to communicate that message. He does that through body gestures like dropping his head, lowering his tail, even presenting a groveling-like behavior of licking under the chin of higher ranking dogs.
Based on my observations, here is what socialization looks like:
I think this happens in both canine and human societies.
Notice, there’s no shaming in that process. The elder dog plainly recognize the pup’s culpability and makes it accountable for its actions. So, there is assignment of guilt, which is both reasonable and the perfect teachable moment.
I don’t know what impels humans to add shame to their interactions with others. As social species, humans and dogs share similar societal strategies. Maintaining membership in the collective is often critical for survival. Our young tend to come hardwired with an inherent faithfulness and allegiance to parents or others of authority.
For decades I have observed dogs interacting in balanced social groups. Of course puppies and other junior members of the pack are prone to test boundaries. Curiosity often leads to mischief. Yet, their elders don’t degrade them with needless indignity. Shame is not necessary to impart information about acceptable social boundaries. I think we can learn from our canine companions.
This Message advises that, regardless of how others may treat you, there is no reason to feel ashamed. None of us is perfect, nor were we intended to be. We are all on our own journey of discovery. While it is important to accept responsibility for your own actions, you cannot control anyone else’s behavior.
However, you can work to accept your imperfect self. You can learn tolerance for others’ imperfections. If you feel shamed, you can overcome the need to belly crawl away, like a mistreated puppy. It is worth the effort to make such transformations.
We are only human. Yet, that is not an excuse. We should all attempt to be our best possible self. When we trip along the way, it is sensible to appreciate that failure isn’t immoral. Often it creates a new launching pad for an alternate approach to success. Success is not the act of achieving perfection. Our imperfections are what make us distinctive and irreplaceable. It is through that variation in ability, craft and character that we bring our unique gifts to the world.
There is nothing to be ashamed of. You are perfectly imperfect.