by Sara Ness
What if “you did it wrong!” could be a compliment?
Our culture tends to penalize mistakes. When someone does a “wrong thing” – hits on a woman who doesn’t want it, lies, fails to keep a commitment – they are likely to end up in trouble. Our system is far more interested in retributive (punishment) than restorative (learning and repairing) solutions to people-problems.
The only problem with this is that it isn’t actually how people learn.
Around 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote: “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”. We learn by reading and researching, by seeing examples, but most of all by TRYING things, and often getting them wrong.
Imagine a woman who has repressed her sexuality all her life. Growing up, she got the model that “flaunting” herself through fancy clothes or flirtation was wrong, maybe even immoral. She saw her parents dress conservatively. She read books that stressed monogamy and caution. She left her home for college, and found that the world has so many more frames on what is acceptable!
She’s never expressed her sexuality openly or seen very good models for it. What do you imagine happening when she first tries to create connections with men? Will they be respectful, empowered, non-needy, communicative connections?
If she’s lucky, she will find people to give her caring and accurate reflections of her impact on them. She’ll learn through seeing what reflections align with who she wants to be, and become able to choose her own way of romantic interaction. Essentially, she’ll move from an earlier stage of moral development (“what my society says must be right”) to a later one (“what I’ve found to be true for myself is right”).
The problem here? Most people, men or women, don’t know how to give accurate and caring feedback. We only know how to blame others for their painful effect on us, in an attempt to change their behavior through shame and control.
This isn’t conscious. I feel pain and I react. This woman acts flirtatious around my (hypothetical) boyfriend and he moves towards her; I judge her as “stealing” or “seducing” him, and cut her out of my life. This woman has sex with multiple people while exploring what she likes; I judge her as “promiscuous” or “a rival” and talk about her behind her back.
These things are what I used to do, anyways. One of the greatest gifts I’ve gotten from Authentic Relating is the capacity to put distance between myself and my reactions, and to recognize when I’m reacting versus interacting. When I’m hurting, it’s probably a reaction, and responding to it tends to just cause more problems for me and my community down the road. But it’s taken a loooooong time to train that muscle.
Reactive expression causes trauma. This woman learns that expressing her sexuality hurts others, and therefore hurts herself. But when she tries to repress her sexuality – when she gets married without any exploration, and doesn’t even know how to make requests in that relationship – the desire starts to come out sideways.
She cheats on her husband. She watches Netflix all day just to numb the need. Then she gets judged yet again, by him and/or by society.
What we resist, persists.
What we repress, explodes.
What we express, evolves. Over time.
I think that we as a culture need to be more accepting of the learning process. The fact that at first, we’re not going to get it right. That if I’d used the example of a man rather than a woman, I’d be describing a lot of the “me too” movement, which at its best is a powerful collection of accurate reflections that have never been shared, and at its worst is a hall of mirrors where its subjects can never find themselves.
Rather than shaming someone for their mistakes, share the impact. Tell them what you experienced and how it felt. Whether they’re learning sexuality, anger, discipline, or anything else, get curious about where they’ve been and where they want to go. Then decide how close you want to be with them as they go through their process of learning. And if you find yourself acting counter to who you want to be, ask this question I stole from Mark Manson:
“What pain can’t I sustain right now?”
And is that more or less painful than fumbling towards the person you want to be?