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The idea that we should know what others are thinking is highly ro-
STEP THREE: CHANGING TOXIC THOUGHTS
mantic but completely unrealistic. Of course, we can often sense another’s mood, but that is far different from reading his or her thoughts. The fantasy of knowing what others are thinking is often mixed with another unrealistic thought pattern: foreseeing the future. Alexis was consumed with guilt when Lana, her college-age sister, committed suicide. “I should have known she was going to kill herself,” Alexis repeated over and over, implying that she should have read her sister’s thoughts and predicted her actions. But it was impossible for Alexis to know of her sister’s suicidal thoughts and virtually impossible to know—except in retrospect—that Lana would try to kill herself. Her sister had kept her suicidal thoughts carefully hidden, never revealing them to her older sister or alluding to them in any way.
Are any of your regrets supported by an assumption that you should have known what others were thinking or that they should have known what you were thinking?
“It’s all about me.” That’s the assumption we make when we take everything that happens to us personally. This unrealistic thought pattern puts us at the center of things, because whatever happens to us is perceived as being about us specifically. It is not about anybody else or about fate or circumstances. It’s about us. Other people’s actions toward us are assumed to be responses to us, to who we are and what we are doing rather than expressions of their own individuality. Personalizing feeds our ego, of course, but it also creates a lot of discomfort and many regrets.
When we personalize, we make ourselves the cause of other people’s actions that are actually taken in response to their own needs, feelings, and desires. Their actions have little or nothing to do with us, but we think they do. So we take responsibility for them. Out of that imagined responsibility, we create regrets. Personalizing generates regrets when there is nothing to regret. It convinces us that if we had just done something better or sooner, the outcome would have been different when, in fact, the outcome had virtually nothing to do with us.
Book publishers, for example, often turn down good manuscripts
because they already have a similar book in production and don’t want another book to cannibalize sales of their new title. Naomi, the author of a splendid nonfiction manuscript, received rejection notices from several publishers, all of whom praised her work but declined on the basis of competing books planned or published. Naomi, however, was convinced that the rejection was based on the quality of her manuscript. In other words, she thought that the rejection was about her andher ability rather than the result of factors unrelated to her talent. She personalized the rejection in spite of the fact that the rejection had nothing to do with the quality of her work. It was the result of a set of factors that were completely unrelated to her writing abilities. Yet Naomi deeply regrets having submitted the manuscript. “I should have polished it more,” she tells herself. “Perhaps I’m not a good writer after all.”
Are any of your regrets supported by having personalized someone’s actions?
Some of our regrets result from the comparisons we make between ourselves and others or between what we have (or don’t have) and what others have. When we compare our lives to their lives, we find that our lives are lacking, and we ask ourselves what went wrong. We may try to identify what happened in our lives that prevented us from having what they have or what made the outcomes in our lives so different from theirs. Such comparisons inevitably lead to regrets, yet all such comparisons are invalid. We don't really know what the lives ofotherpeople are like.
We may think we know, but we don’t know, because the data we need to judge their lives are unavailable to us. We don’t know their hidden failures, secret fears, personal tragedies, or bitter regrets. Just because they look good doesn’t mean they feel good. Because they look rich doesn’t mean they are rich. Because they look happy doesn’t mean they are happy. We have made a fundamental error of logic: an incomplete comparison based on insufficient evidence. As the expression goes, we have compared our “insides” to another person’s “outsides.” This comparison is always flawed.
STEP THREE: CHANGING TOXIC THOUGHTS
Because we cannot read other peoples’ minds, we are in no position to measure our challenges against theirs, although it seems that some people do have far greater challenges than others. And there is no question that some people seem to have far more difficult lives. Extreme poverty, severe emotional problems, incest, debilitating chronic illness, the early loss of loved ones, depression, a series of tragedies, and serious physical handicaps are all factors that make it easy for those who have experienced them to say, “My life is more difficult than so-and-so’s.” And perhaps it is. In making such assessments, they may well be right. But they cannot be sure.