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Whatever our challenges are, we probably don’t like them, but then again, we probably wouldn’t like theirs either. What we do know is that no one—no matter how rich, famous, or powerful—escapes the life-shaping challenges to which we all are heir as members of the human race. Therefore we must be careful in comparing the way we feel to the way others look or appear to be. The very people we are envying may, in fact, be envying us!
Nor are such comparisons useful to us even if our lives are especially difficult. They only deepen our regrets and increase our sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Whatever we have experienced was ours to deal with by changing what we could and by accepting what we could not change. The facts of our lives cannot be altered, but our reactions to them can be. Whatever has happened to us has happened to us. Energy spent on bemoaning our fate is energy lost—energy that could be used to improve it or to accept it. The finite nature of human understanding precludes us from knowing all that we would like to know or even need to know to make comparisons and judgments such as these.
Are any of your regrets supported by incomplete comparisons?
We have all done things for which we ought to feel guilty. And we have very likely felt guilty for things we have done when little or no guilt was warranted. Guilt is an effective means of self-control, but it is also a means of controlling others. It can be used to manipulate and even ruin lives. Some parents have held their children captive for years through the power
of guilt. Wives have controlled husbands, and husbands have controlled wives. Yet guilt also leads us to make amends for what we have done wrong and keeps us within our value system. It is an essential part of our makeup.
Some of us, however, have a propensity for guilt even when it isn’t warranted. We seem to seek it out. Many regrets arise from such guilt, guilt that we have never examined but that originates from our unrealistic thought patterns. Perfectionism is one such thought pattern that produces guilt. The greater our need for perfection, the more likely we are to feel guilty when we fail to meet our expectations of perfection or the expectations of others.
We also take on undeserved guilt when we have an unreasonable desire to please people. When conflicting demands are made on us that we cannot meet, we have no reason to feel guilty when we reject one or more of them. But instead of saying no, disappointing someone, and letting it go, we feel guilty for not having pleased everyone. The guilt isn’t warranted.
As with the other unrealistic thought patterns, we may also use guilt to avoid accepting responsibility for our lives. We do so when we don’t work to make our lives better, because we “don’t deserve it.”
With an unrealistic commitment to perfection, an exaggerated need to please others, or a desire to avoid responsibility, we become putty in the hands of those who would use guilt to exploit us. We have to distinguish between a legitimate criticism or a legitimate analysis of our actions and one that is simply wrong or motivated by hidden agendas. Whenever we accept the criticism of others without weighing its merits, we are turning our power to analyze and evaluate over to someone else. Not every criticism is valid, and not every source of criticism is reliable or trustworthy. We do not have to accept guilt imposed by anyone else. Nor should we accept guilt without a careful analysis that involves our confidant and other trusted sources of good counsel.
We can defend ourselves from unwarranted guilt, because guilt results from actions that can be identified and analyzed. The manufactured guilt that we create or the exaggerated guilt that we take on from others can be rejected through thought analysis. Thought analysis will establish the validity or invalidity of any guilt we feel. Such analysis is tricky, however. We can delude ourselves into believing that we have done nothing wrong, just
STEP THREE: CHANGING TOXIC THOUGHTS
as we can uncritically accept the warranted guilt that we or others try to place on us.
Working with our confidant, we can determine whether the guilt we feel is merited. We can determine whether it comes from living or long-dead parents, from outmoded ideas, or from unrealistic thought patterns. Beyond such thought analysis, we can journal, pray, and meditate about the incident that created the guilt and our role in it. While we must never shirk our moral responsibilities, neither should we take on those that are not ours. Manufactured guilt can be recognized and rejected. Real guilt can be released through the Ten Steps.
Are any of your regrets supported by undeserved guilt?
Reimagining the Past
Reimagining the past is a thought pattern we use to create regrets when we fondly remember what never was and then compare it to the way things are now. In reimagining, we return to the past to exaggerate the good while forgetting the bad. Through selective forgetting of some events and selective enhancement of others, reimagining leads us to the erroneous conclusion that whatever we have now is not nearly as good as what we used to have. Ricardo compares his present job to an “ideal” job he once had, forgetting how much he disliked his boss, how difficult the commute was, and how happy he was to escape. Now he regrets leaving the old job. But the regret is manufactured. Ricardo couldn’t wait to leave that job.