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With a few glaring exceptions, I lived as an honorable, trustworthy person. One of those exceptions occurred when ego, pride, and fear prevented me from admitting the real consequences of a significant, but not criminal, investment loss in a client’s account.
Rather than face the prospects of embarrassment and a potential civil lawsuit, I misappropriated funds from accounts that belonged to other clients in an effort to create an illusion. I wanted investments in the first client’s account to appear as if they were performing better.
I pleaded guilty, lost my license to practice law and received SEC sanctions. In the aftermath, I questioned what I should do with my life, but I couldn’t find perspective on how to cope with the shame that accompanied my felony conviction.
The government’s abbreviated version of the story lacks context and misrepresents what transpired, from my perspective. Despite omissions from the government’s version of events, the facts resulted in my conviction and imprisonment.
My crime made the situation worse. In my misguided and delusional plan, I would cover the losses with personal resources over time. I needed to create the deception until I could carry the plan through. For a while, the plan worked. Eventually, the crime became impossible to cover. Until that moment, I did not consider myself a criminal. Knowing that I committed the crime burdened me with overwhelming feelings of shame that I did not anticipate.
Shon Hopwood, a well-known criminal appellate lawyer, associate professor of law at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C., and advocate for criminal justice reform, spent 12 years in prison for robbing banks as a young man. His story of redemption serves as a beacon of hope for the formerly incarcerated. Recently Shon published this post on his Facebook page: “It haunts me the harm I’ve caused. On the Victims of my crimes. On my family and my community. I ain’t shit. And where I went to school or where I teach or where I clerked. Or where I’m published really doesn’t matter.”
Shon’s feelings are by no means unique. In fact, his honest expressions of remorse resonated deeply with me. I know first-hand the internal toll that shame can place on a person. Occasionally, shame unexpectedly washes over me, and I feel it down to the core of my existence. It shapes every aspect of my reality. How could I have been so stupid, so ego driven, so greedy? Why did I take on so much risk for so little reward?
Guilt differs from shame, but often leads to shame. I feel guilt when I’m remorseful because of something I’ve done. That’s different from feeling shame. Shame convinces me that I’m not worthy because of something I’ve done. Shame takes the guilt I feel for my actions and internalizes it into my soul or psyche. With shame, I become what I did. As Shon writes, “I ain’t shit.” Because of shame, I feel as if nothing else that I do or become matters.
My sense is that those feelings will never completely go away, but I’m working to develop coping skills that help me manage the feelings rather than allowing the feelings to control me. Thankfully, I have a loving wife and family and friends who lift me up and out of that shameful fog. Often they do this unintentionally by simply showing me love, by showing me that I matter to them, or by just allowing me to be a part of their lives. While I don’t recommend that anyone commit an act that could lead to 49 months in a Federal Prison Camp, I will say that solitude and introspection helped me realize that shame didn’t have to shape my future.
I recommend other people consider the wisdom that author Brene Brown offers in her book, Daring Greatly. She writes “I believe the differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.”
Despite the recommendation I make to others, I still ask the question of myself. “How can I best not fall into the trap of shame?”
I recommend we all accept that shame deters possibilities for making positive changes in life. Shame leads to self-destruction, a self-fulfilling prophesy of a life nobody wants to live. Shame manifests itself in anger, sadness and reclusiveness.
I recommend that people struggling with shame become more intentional about living in the moment, not the past. Those who want to overcome shame should practice the art of gratitude, living in appreciation for life’s blessings. Acknowledge that feelings of guilt can help a person not repeat the same mistakes.
A person should separate past misdeeds from personal identity. Doing so does not change reality, or make crime less harmful to victims. Nor does it mean the person is not accepting responsibility for harmful actions. Despite past bad decisions, a person can move on to develop healthy relationships, and strive to live as a better citizen, husband, father, or co-worker. A person can develop courage and perspective to make better decisions.
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