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When we insist on being perfect or nearly perfect, we will be tortured by regrets over our mistakes and misjudgments. We repeatedly revisit the circumstances of our regrets to “make them right” in our heads or to berate ourselves for the errors that exposed our imperfection. “If only...” we plead with ourselves and reimagine the regret with the outcome we wanted. Or we mutter, “Why, why?” condemning ourselves for our stupidity, our carelessness, or our forgetfulness. We can’t bear to accept our mistake and let it go. Such a course of action would require an admission of imperfection that is too painful to accept. Some of us are more demanding of perfection than others, and the most demanding of us are also the most impaired and the most pained.
Perfectionism keeps us from reaching our full potential and even from recognizing and acknowledging our legitimate talents and abilities. Ironically, many perfectionists do not achieve what they had hoped in life because they do not try. They do not try because they dare not fail. In our perfectionist minds, it is better to fail from not trying than to try and fail because we could not perform. Perfectionism thus robs us of the lessons of failure but not of failure itself. And it always creates regrets.
Erich, a college junior, doesn’t start his papers until the night before they are due. He explains away his C by saying that he would have gotten an A “if only” he had had more time. The C doesn’t represent a failure for Erich—a judgment on his real ability—because he never had the time to use that ability. He could have made an A, you see, except that he just didn’t have the time. And if he lucked out with an A? Well, that’s a testament to his extraordinary capability, so much greater than his friends who
STEP THREE: CHANGING TOXIC THOUGHTS
had devoted many hours to their papers. The problem for Erich is that he will not often luck out. So he will not often succeed. He might have made an A if he had spent a reasonable amount of time on the difficult paper, but he will never know. He couldn’t take the chance of not getting the A; he couldn’t take the chance of “failing.”
Perfectionism makes our regrets more regrettable, self-forgiveness more unlikely, and what we did more abominable. Since we judge our actions by impossibly high standards, our mistakes seem far graver to us than they would to a nonperfectionist. This assessment makes it harder for us to forgive ourselves. It also makes it harder for us to appreciate that we may have done the best we could under the circumstances. Perfectionism interferes with the natural process of erring, learning, letting go, and moving on. Are any of your regrets supported by perfectionism?
A common thought pattern is an exaggerated sense of control over other people and the events of our lives. We have some influence over people and events, but we have little power to control them, and usually our influence on the final outcome is much less than we think. When this thought pattern is carried to an extreme, we take responsibility for all kinds of results over which we had no real control and for which we should not be held accountable. Yet we hold ourselves responsible anyway and so develop regrets. Consider this example of a harmless fantasy of the power to control events. Following the loss of his favorite football team in the Super Bowl, Ivan says, “I know why they lost. I didn’t wear my red shirt. They always win when I wear my red shirt, but I left it at the cleaners and couldn’t get it on the day of the Super Bowl and, well, you see the result!”
Of course, it’s a joke, and, in this instance, Ivan doesn’t really believe his claim to superpowers. It was a harmless fantasy expressed for fun. But Ivan deeply regrets that he didn’t “save” his marriage. It ended because the mental illness of his former wife drove her to leave him. The marriage could not have been salvaged. Yet he accepts responsibility for its failure because he “should have been able to make it work.” Like Ivan, we are victimized by unrealistic thoughts of exaggerated control when we blame ourselves
for things that happened over which we had no real control. The result is an imagined sense of responsibility for the problem, grossly inflated guilt, and powerful regrets.
Are any of your regrets supported by an exaggerated sense of control over other people or events?
Foreseeing the Future
Astrology columns, fortune-tellers, psychics, economists, tarot card readers, and Wall Street analysts all point to our fascination with knowing the future. And why not? If we could foresee events, we could eliminate costly mistakes, avoid serious pain, and guarantee extraordinary success. But we cannot predict the future. Undoubtedly, there are a few people who, for whatever reason, can sometimes foresee what is going to happen. But even they are not infallible, and even they are caught unprepared by events in their own lives.
Yet in our regrets, we often blame ourselves for not having predicted future events and acted to prevent them or take advantage of them in some way. In such regretting, we blame ourselves for our “mistakes” that resulted purely from our inability to predict the future. Any regret that is based on a failure to predict the future is an unfounded regret. Alfredo, for example, blamed himself for not selling his stock in time to avoid heavy losses when the stock market declined. “I should have known that the market was going down and cashed out,” he kept telling himself as he switched his now reduced stock portfolio into a cash account. Later, when the market rallied and he had not invested in it, Alfredo blamed himself for not having foreseen its rise. “I should have seen the turnaround coming,” he complained bitterly to himself. But why? Why should Alfredo have known the future direction of the stock market?