On my birthday this year, I told myself I didn't have to feel bad about anything. I didn't have to feel bad about not hopping out of bed quickly. I didn't have to feel bad about not being productive enough. I didn't have to feel bad about saying what I wanted to eat for dinner unapologetically. Every time those negative feelings would pop up, I’d say “Nope! It’s my birthday! I get to do this!”
The thing is, nothing I had to remind myself not to feel bad about was something I should feel bad about any day. I wasn’t mean to anyone. I wasn’t being a drain on my friends and family. I was just existing and enjoying my day.
Why did I learn to feel bad about that? I clearly did. The number of times I had to explicitly not feel bad was not a weird coincidence. It came from training.
It would be one thing if those bad feelings helped me be a better person and get more done. Not necessarily the best thing, but at least I could look at them and say, maybe these are needed to help me be who I want to be. But they don’t. They do the opposite. They drag me down. I spend so much of my time and energy on emotional regulation that I could be spending joyfully doing the things I want to be doing. I want to be creating. I want to be care-taking. I want to be moving my body. I want to be making and eating good food. I want to connect with people. I want to work with folks on decolonizing tech.
I don’t know how to break out of this. I don’t know how to retrain myself to not trigger the “feel bad now” neural pathways. I think it might have something to do with mindfulness and exercise and talking to people. But it’s a big complicated project that I’ll be working on for a while.
I know I’m not alone, though. I know a lot of people feel just like this. I know that if we want to create a company that authentically supports our team and our customers enjoying the work they do, we have to figure out how to support people through this.
To be clear, I’m not saying we should never feel bad. We have to mourn and grieve, and care when we hurt someone. We should have negative feelings about the ways we contribute to injustice and harm. We need time and space to feel those feelings. We just shouldn’t have to feel them all the time. We don’t need bonus bad feelings. We don’t need to build internal shrines to them that we force ourselves to sit at multiple times a day.
The fact that I do this, and the fact that I know so many people who do this, tells me this is systemic. I know that I need to be doing more mindfulness, and exercise, and working on it. But it’s also not a “me” problem. I didn’t create this. I’m not the one responsible. The real solution has to be one we create together.
I often hear people say that people calling out injustice are “just trying to make them feel bad.” I don’t think that’s true. I think we already feel bad. I think injustice creates bad feelings and calling it out is a vital step in liberating us all from those feelings. It is part of working on systemic problems. Injustice is more than bad feelings, of course. It literally kills people and destroys whole cultures. I don’t want to downplay that. But I also want to acknowledge the role that negative feelings have in injustice. So much oppression is in the grind. The small acts that affect our day to day. It is real and it matters. It is exhausting and debilitating.
Why: I can’t get myself to activate. I should start on something, but starting is really hard for me.
Cause: A lifetime of living with a brain that doesn’t produce sufficient internal stimulants in a world that views that as a personal failing, rather than something that needs to be supported.
Systemic connection: Ableism
What this could look like instead: I have a set of tools for activating that are easy for me to access. I also have built in room for when it’s just not working. I internalize grace instead of shame. Others see the whole of what I do, recognize it, and provide support without blame. I reciprocate for them.
Why: I didn’t get 100% of the result I hoped for. Although I have likely gotten some positive outcome, I focus on the part I haven’t achieved yet.
Cause: Fixed mindset. I focus on what I believe a failure (or even an incomplete success) says about who I am, rather than focusing on what I’m learning and the ongoing work.
Systemic connection: An education system that re-enforces fixed mindset through a focus on evaluation and testing, rather than on learning, creating, and contributing.
What this could look like instead: I celebrate steps I take and take time to think about what I learned. I notice when I am making progress and value that.
Why: I’m engaging with someone on social media who is being bigoted
Cause: I’m pushing back against the societal hierarchy that allows some people to assert dominance over other people. People are then punishing me for doing that. I’m conscious of the ways this has downstream consequences for me.
Systemic connection: All of it
What this could look like instead: We teach people the skill set of hearing they are participating in systemic oppression and how to navigate that. People still can have complicated feelings about that, but they also appreciate learning and growing together. When people call out injustice they feel supported and rewarded.
I started this draft a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I have not magically transformed into the future vision of myself. But that is ok. Naming things has power. Sharing the journey with others has power. I will not rewire my brain in a day or a week or a year. I certainly won’t address the systemic causes by myself quickly. So, let me once again remember to give myself grace, notice the progress, and invite you all to join me. Let’s do this work together.