Why It’s Okay to Feel Bad about Our Shortcomings
There are times when it’s okay to feel bad about our actions.
Posted September 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Emotional growth occurs, in part, by recognizing our mistakes and the feelings they instilled.
- It’s important to acknowledge and experience these emotions rather than to avoid them.
- Being open and non-defensive, practicing self-compassion, and asking questions can help us overcome our shortcomings.
Most of the time, I write about the downsides of self-criticism — so much so that anyone familiar with my work would probably be puzzled by the title of this post. For years, I’ve centered my research and practice on understanding and challenging a “critical inner voice” we all possess that is way too hard on us. While acting on this “voice” is something we should always strive to avoid, there are times when it’s okay to feel bad about our actions.
We are all human, and we are all flawed, but the way we grow emotionally and as a human being is, in part, through recognizing when we have acted badly and feeling the accompanying feelings of pain, sadness, hurt, and even anger toward ourselves. Feelings, all feelings, provide us with information. We need to experience feeling bad about our less than ideal behavior, so we can make changes and develop ourselves.
For example, it is important to feel bad when we have taken actions that hurt another person or ourselves. Yet, we live in a society that often models avoiding personal responsibility and avoiding “negative emotions” at all costs. I remember well a dinner I had where a man who was recently divorced shared his therapist’s response to his request for medication to alleviate the pain he was experiencing. The therapist’s reply was, “There are some things you should feel bad about, and this is one of them.”
Patients often ask me for methods to get over, away from, or around the pain they feel when they have mistreated someone or themselves. I have become fond of saying the way to deal with feelings is by going through them, not around them. Suppressing and avoiding feelings is also not helpful. By feeling the negative feelings we have after bad behavior, we can recognize ways we behave that are not aligned with our own values and beliefs. This is the first step to becoming a person with integrity, a person we can admire.
To be clear, I am not suggesting we ruminate about how bad we were or beat ourselves up, but rather, that we feel our feelings and use them to develop ourselves. Many of us find it challenging to take an honest look at ourselves without falling victim to the point of view of our inner critic. Yet, without reflection on our actions and an appropriate emotional response, how can we be expected to learn from our misbehaviors or evolve inside ourselves? When we’ve hurt somebody else, we must accept responsibility in order to develop new ways of being. Here are some ways to go about taking power over our shortcomings without tumbling down a path of self-hatred.
1. Be open and non-defensive.
When we regret a way we acted, it’s helpful to adopt a curious, reflective attitude in which we are seeking rather than avoiding feelings and the information they embody. We can ask ourselves what we objected to about our behavior and how it affected us and others. We should try to treat ourselves with self-compassion, the same way we would a friend exploring an issue they’re seeking to change about themselves.
Remember that most of us come by our behavior honestly. Many of our worst traits are born out of ways we learned to protect or defend ourselves early in life. These things are in our power to change, but we must first recognize and acknowledge their existence. Reflecting on our most destructive actions can lead us to a deeper understanding of how we came to be the ways we are. It can also bring up a lot of feelings for the circumstances that led to these original adaptations.
2. Feel the feelings.
When we act in ways with which we are disappointed, we should remind ourselves that it’s okay to feel whatever feelings arise. We can’t just get over it by pretending it didn’t happen or trying to numb the feelings we are experiencing. If we give ourselves space to feel sad or sorry, we learn that we can handle these emotions and grow from them, rather than going to the extremes of either denying them or letting them drag us into a state of devastation.
Feeling the pain of mistreating someone we care about or sabotaging something we desired is an honest reaction that invites other important feelings like empathy or motivation to change. It also allows other emotions to follow that may offer us clues into why we acted the way we did in the first place. We may realize that a feeling of fear, anger, or shame was triggered inside us that caused us to lash out or react in some way that didn’t serve us. Accepting these feelings and allowing them to pass through us is an important part of growth.
3. Keep your inner critic in check.
It’s one thing to be willing to face our shortcomings and experience our feelings in an effort to better understand ourselves. It’s an entirely different thing to let a destructive internal enemy bully and berate us into a state of self-hatred. Self-hatred does not lead to change or anything constructive. Every one of us has flaws. The real test of our integrity is established by how we are able to take personal responsibility for our behavior’s impact on ourselves and others and develop into the person we want to be.
As soon as we notice ourselves having cruel, evaluative thoughts about ourselves, we are on the wrong path. Thoughts that only serve to put us down or make us feel defeated are a sure sign that we’re listening to our critical inner voice. Instead, we should keep talking to ourselves the way we would a friend, accepting truthful feedback, while staying deeply compassionate toward ourselves.
4. Practice self-compassion.
Being honest about ourselves is never about dragging ourselves through the mud. Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not about self-evaluation. Rather, it is about adopting a kind way of treating ourselves, a mindful way of relating to our thoughts and feelings, and an acceptance of our common humanity. We need self-compassion when we’re being introspective, because it helps us not get carried away with cynical, destructive thoughts, while remaining open to noticing ways we need to improve. When we stay on our own side and remind ourselves that our flaws are part of what makes us human, we're able to stay open and curious about what we seek to change about ourselves.
5. Avoid rumination.
No matter what, ruminating on a problem only makes it worse. If we notice ourselves getting stuck on bad thoughts toward ourselves or playing our mistakes on repeat, it’s time to move on. Our goal is not to build a case against ourselves about how awful we are. It is rather to invite honest reflection, allow whatever feelings to arise, and set a course toward different actions in the future.
6. Ask questions and listen to the answers.
When we hurt another person, it’s important to invite them to share their perspective and try to understand their experience. We should make an effort to ask questions and listen to the answers without interrupting to deflect or defend ourselves. When they share their story, we should focus on being attuned to them and reflecting back their experience. We can then try to communicate what we were originally trying to express, acknowledging that we were hurtful in how we went about it.
The process of learning to be honest with ourselves about our hurtful behavior is one that takes a lot of patience and a lot of self-compassion. Feeling the painful feelings that arise is an important part of the process. The more we can accept that we are a learning, evolving, and hurt person, just like everyone else, the more we can empower ourselves to consciously develop and change. We can learn more about why we defend ourselves in certain ways and how we act in ways that limit our own lives. We can then take more mindful actions that help us express who we really are and what we really want.