How to be a Better Settler #14: Guilt and Shame are teachers, not friends

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In my personal experience of reconciliation, and in doing this work with others, the same things seem to come up very early in the process. People start to express feelings of guilt and shame. There’s a way to cope with these feelings though, I promise.

What I’m about to suggest may sound counter-intuitive, but it works. Trust me.

Here’s what you do: Hang out with Guilt and Shame a bit. Ask them what it is they want to teach you. Listen to them and what they say (except the part where they say you suck and are a bad person, because I’m pretty sure you’re not. Guilt and Shame are jerks like that). Think about what they have to say. Decide what has merit for your learning right now–what are they saying about what you now know that you can act on?

File away the other stuff you gotta come back to cos it’s just a bit too much right now. Toss what sounds like a load of baloney (like the stuff about you being a horrible person).

Then thank Guilt and Shame for coming to work today, and send them home.

Do not ask them out for a drink. Do not invite them over for dinner. And for Pete’s sake, do not ask them to join you and your friends and family at the cottage this weekend.

Why am I advising you to do this? Because I see this all the time. I see settlers overwhelmed and feeling like our shared history and Reconciliation is all just a bit too much and then they spiral out and start feeling and acting like they have to solve and make amends for everything while at the same time looking around for someone to make them feel better about all this tough stuff they are going through. They can start making it seem like it’s about them. (Think about it–Indigenous people have been feeling this for at least 150 years–and you’re going to start having a meltdown about it starting today? Get over yourself).

This is Guilt and Shame running the show.

Guilt and Shame are there to make you afraid and scare you off the work of Reconciliation. That fear manifests itself in the panic of deflecting responsibility (like asking others to make you feel better) or assuming all responsibility (like feeling overwhelmed with all the work that has to be done). The other reaction is just ignoring it altogether and hoping someone else will take care of things (like that’s working for us).

If you succumb, you make this whole journey About You and Your Feelings. And it’s not About You and Your Feelings. It’s about Being Better. It’s about Reconciliation. It’s about validation and recognition of the Indigenous experience.

The only You this should be about is the learning, exploring, understanding, questioning You. The changed, altered, better version of You. The contributing to reconciliation You.

Asking someone else to make you feel better about a bad situation you feel kinda responsible for creating is self-indulgent. It removes your responsibility. It paralyzes you and prevents you from taking any action you may want to take to make things better. It diminishes the experience of people who actually have suffered at the hands of our unbalanced system. It removes your ability to learn and grow and prepare you to move forward and take in the next, and likely tougher, piece of learning.

It keeps you from changing into a better version of yourself.

And if being and doing better are your motivation in all of this (which I really hope it is, otherwise why are you reading this series?), then be prepared for the Guilt and Shame to show up, then know when to show them the door.

Then, get to work. Be Better.