It is extremely difficult to face our own missteps, limitations, and selfishness. That awful feeling of not liking ourselves is incredibly unpleasant. It’s really tempting to make sure we don’t have to feel that way. So it’s nice if we don’t have to know about the parts of ourselves that we do not like so much. Most of the time our social environment is constructed around an accepted set of manners that protects us from other people’s critical observations and protects other people from our critical observations.
It’s hard to tell someone when you think they have made choices in error. It is hard to hear from other people when they think this about us. There are lots of ways we make it hard for people to be honest with us. We get wounded by criticism; we get angry at people who disagree with us; we avoid people who are too honest with us.
I’m not talking about people who are destructive. I’m not talking about people who are hurtful and competitive. I’m talking about good friends and family who have a privileged understanding of us and who can give us some helpful feedback from an outside perspective. I’m talking about the people who want to be close to us and who are willing to let us know when they believe we have been unskillful.
Sometimes our response to this feedback is a fit of self-rage. Either overtly or in our minds, we criticize ourselves with a fierce frenzy. We remind ourselves of everything terrible that we have ever done or said. We become discouraged or distressed. We feel worthless and we lose our motivation. We fight with despair.
This kind of self-rage is a way of not hearing the message. Once we get caught up in that kind of self-flagellation, we can no longer reflectively consider the information we are getting. Self-rage feels like genuine remorse, but it isn’t. It is a way to reinforce our painful avoidance of knowing how imperfect we are. It’s a way to avoid paying serious attention to what someone is trying to tell us.
Genuine remorse contains compassion–for ourselves and other people too. It contains appreciation for being able to recognize where we need to grow. It respects people who care enough about us to try to be authentic with us. Remorse allows us to recognize the hurt that we may have caused another person without it reducing our own sense of self-worth. Remorse is tricky. It feels unpleasant but it is not self-destructive.