Being an ally in social justice spaces means messing up and making mistakes that can hurt other people. Dealing with the guilt that can come up when you make such mistakes can be difficult. It’s important to recognize that guilt is not always a useful tool for righting a situation or making change. Instead, it can stop you in your tracks. I have messed up in attempts to be an ally, and I felt so awful that it took me a while to engage with social justice once more. I was afraid that I would mess up again, and that I would hurt other people, and that people would think I was a bad person. I felt that I was a bad person for making such a mistake.
This kind of guilt is not useful. I withdrew due to this swirl of painful emotions, rather than engaging with my mistake and learning from it. Guilt prevented me from recognizing my mistake, apologizing, taking action to make it right, and making changes in my future behavior. But despite being able to recognize its counterproductive nature, this kind of guilt comes up for a great many of us. So what can we do about these difficult feelings? How can we move through guilt to more useful actions and emotions?
There’s no easy answer or how-to guide. I am still working through this process myself. One important step is accepting that these feelings come up and not beating ourselves up even further for feeling them. Past that, these are some strategies that I have been thinking about and using to get through the shame and guilt that come up when I make hurtful mistakes.
It’s important to recognize that our guilt for making a mistake that hurts others does not compare to the hurt we caused. So, when working through our guilt, we must be sure to respect the boundaries and pain of the people affected by our mistake. One way that I try to do this is based on The Ring Theory. The Ring Theory says that when someone is dealing with a difficult issue, it’s important to comfort in, only providing support to the person dealing with the issue and those closer to them. If the situation is difficult for you to handle, dump those difficult feelings out, to people who are more distant from the situation than you are.
So, I seek out people removed from the situation to vent my feelings to. If I’m struggling to overcome feelings of guilt or self-loathing because I fucked up as an ally, I don’t go to the person I hurt and tell them how badly I’m feeling. Nor do I go to their friends, or, if we have them, mutual friends. Instead, I seek a neutral party to listen to my feelings and help me sort out and work through them. That way, I don’t have to bottle up how I’m feeling, but I also don’t make my feelings of guilt central to the situation.
Another important part of moving through mistakes is listening to the person who has been hurt by our words or actions. If we immediately close ourselves off due to embarrassment or guilt, we can’t understand what we did wrong and not make that mistake in the future. This step can be more difficult to take, because conversations about oppression and hurt can be very intense. Sometimes, people lash out when hurt or don’t want to have a conversation with the person who has hurt them.
Everyone has a right to their emotions and reactions, just as everyone has a right to set boundaries around any encounter. Listening to people when they are angry is an important skill, and anger is a useful and valid emotion. But it is also important to set our own boundaries in interactions and require respect to be a part of any conversation when anger and hurt cross the line into personal attack. Work to understand how you have hurt someone even if they don’t want to engage with you or you can’t engage with them. This can help us learn how to avoid hurting others in the same way in the future.
A final important point for moving through guilt is accepting the consequences of your mistake. Understand that some people might not feel comfortable around you, or even like you, after you have made a hurtful mistake. That’s okay. It’s not their responsibility to give you another chance, nor is it your responsibility to feel like a monster. Accepting consequences and changing one’s behavior is a really difficult part of moving through a mistake or doing something hurtful. Apologizing, respecting other’s boundaries, and seeking support within your own system are some ways to work through the guilt or pain that can come up during such a difficult process.
We cannot learn to be perfect 100% of the time and avoid hurting everyone. We will still make mistakes and hurt others, and it’s important to learn how to process those mistakes and grow from them. The more we listen and reflect on our actions and how they affect others, the more educated and mindful we can become in our interactions with one another.
[Headline image: The photograph features an androgynous light-skinned person with red hair, holding their hand to their forehead and looking ashamed.]