“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”
We’ve all heard the saying.
And as far as it goes, I guess, it’s fairly decent advice. Look for the silver lining, find the lesson in the tragedy, yadda yadda, what-the-hell-ever.
But what if life isn’t to blame?
What if you planted the seeds, watered the tree, and picked those motherfucking lemons yourself?
What do you do when it’s your fault?
It seems most of the world falls roughly into one of two camps: the finger-pointing, blame-shifting, “not my fault” camp or the self-punishing, self-loathing “everything’s my fault, all the time” camp.
Or maybe that’s just my cynicism on overdrive after a contentious political season.
Nah. Probably not.
Here’s what I did, when a combination of external events and my own personal failures created the mother of all shit-storms four years back:
I ignored the problem.
When it exploded, so I could no longer ignore it, sure I asked for help – but I asked the wrong people, or I asked the right people for the wrong kind of help.
And then, when the explosion was over, fires had been extinguished, and all that was left was to face up to the consequences, I punished myself.
I kept punishing myself for three years.
I’ve only realized in the last few months the extent to which I imposed solitary confinement on myself. At the time, it didn’t feel like punishment so much as it felt like consequences.
And there’s a big difference between those two, as any parent can tell you.
Sane, sober, non-abusive parents don’t punish their kids for wrongdoing because the child needs to suffer. They do it because the kids have to learn consequences flow from bad actions.
Which makes it understandable, I suppose, that many of us punish ourselves when we screw up big.
That’s what I did. I began believing not that I’d made a bad choice – but that I was a bad person.
I began to believe I deserved financial ruin, homelessness, the loss of some friends, and more.
But here’s what I learned over the last few years: it’s not my job to punish myself.
Please understand: I’m not talking about consequences. I’m not talking about putting things right (which you should do, to the best of your ability). I’m not talking about shirking responsibility (which you must not do, if you value your integrity at all and it’s not just a word you throw around in your website copy).
I’m talking about self-loathing … self-imposed exiles … self-created deprivation.
I’m talking about the way I convinced myself I had no right to speak up when I wasn’t being treated fairly by someone, because I fucked up a few years ago.
Or the way I withdrew from society and friendships, because I had no right to feel loved and appreciated and part of a community, because I fucked up a few years ago.
That’s also useless. And counter-productive.
Because how can you create anything worthwhile in that headspace?
How can you even begin to move on?
That kind of self-loathing is destructive, in the most literal sense. Day by day, I felt parts of myself flaking off, leaving a psychic trail of crap behind me.
And as long as I was wallowing in that much self-loathing, I was incapable of doing anything to correct the situation.
I’ll be paying the price for my mistakes for a long time – and that’s completely appropriate, and totally right.
But I’m done punishing myself.
I found that in the center of this shit-storm, like the eye of a hurricane, was a still, calm spot of awesomeness: a new sense of mission.
Like Steve Martin’s character in Leap of Faith, I became the sinner-who-became-the-priest. (‘Cause nobody knows sin – and how to give that fucker the slip – like a sinner.)
Yes, I picked my own damn lemons.
You will too, one day if you haven’t already.
And when it happens, here’s what you do:
- Face up to it. Don’t ignore it. It all just gets bigger and uglier.
- Ask for the right kind of help, from the right people.
- Apologize where you can.
- Make it right where that’s possible.
- Get clear on what you just learned.
- Resolve not to need a refresher course ever again.
- Move the fuck on.
About the Author:
Annie Sisk is currently working on The Pajama Productivity Guide to Getting Your Business $%!# Done, a book about productivity written just for small business owners, freelancers, and creative workers. You can get more of Annie’s get-your-shit-done advice at Pajama Productivity.