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True victims beset by tragedy and deep suffering elicit our well-deserved sympathy. Some of us, however, are addicted to sympathy, whether deserved or not, and to the attention it brings. So we turn ourselves into victims of past events, living in our regrets instead of the present, and filled with a cloying self-pity about the regrets of our lives. Regrets of a certain kind allow us to be impressive, woe-filled victims who wallow in easy attention, others’ sympathy, and an irresponsibility that we justify to ourselves. In that role, we are great people who would have achieved great things and been wildly happy if only such-and-such had happened—or hadn’t happened.
We may position ourselves as self-righteous martyrs suffering at the hands of wicked people, an unjust fate, or terrible circumstances, subtly or aggressively recounting our tales of woe to all who will listen, including ourselves. Some of us take a different tack, presenting ourselves as saints who have gallantly endured an endless string of horrors we are only too happy to recount. Or perhaps we choose to be brave survivors of terrible events that we continuously revisit—and never let go. All of these victim roles rely on regrets to legitimize our victim status. To let go of our regrets
STEP THREE: CHANGING TOXIC THOUGHTS
would mean having to learn a new role, to become something other than life’s victim. It would mean having to take responsibility for our lives. It would mean having to do something about them in the present.
2. Use Thought Analysis to Counter Toxic Thoughts That Support the Regret
Although you may have experienced toxic thought patterns for years, it is not necessary to continue being hurt by them. You can counteract toxic thoughts and reduce their occurrence by challenging them through thought analysis whenever they crop up. The process of using thought analysis to identify and counteract toxic thought patterns that support your regrets consists of four steps:
1. Listen critically to the thoughts you have about your regrets. What is it that you tell yourself about them?
2. Identify the thoughts related to your regrets that arise from toxic thought patterns, such as perfectionism, exaggerated control, or justification for inaction.
3. Analyze the validity of the thought by asking yourself such questions as, “Is this statement true?” “Is it fair?” “Is it realistic?” Ask yourself if you are really expected to be perfect, to predict the future, or to know what others are thinking.
4. Act on your analysis by rejecting the thought if it is invalid (unfair, untrue, or unrealistic). Tell yourself that the toxic thought is false and that you reject it. You do not have to be convinced, swayed, or influenced by thoughts that can’t stand up to the scrutiny of thought analysis. Tell yourself that the toxic thought is an old thought that you no longer entertain and that no longer has power over you. See yourself letting it go, releasing it into the air like a balloon that floats away.
Generally, toxic thoughts begin with some variation of “I should have” or “If only I had.” When such thoughts arise, ask yourself if they are really
true. Could you or should you really have done such-and-such at the time? Do the “should haves” and “could haves” through which you blame yourself arise from perfectionism, a sense of exaggerated control, or foreseeing the future? Do they come from incomplete comparisons, reimagining the past, personalizing events, or some other toxic thought pattern?
The use of thought analysis to counter toxic thought patterns is a process that requires continuous practice. The thought habits of a lifetime are not quickly changed, but they can be countered, neutralized, and gradually altered though persistent work. Progress, not perfection, is the goal with this step.
Step Three has been worked when you have identified the toxic thought patterns that support your regrets and have committed to countering them in your daily life.
Step Four: Grieving Losses
Grief is part of all regretting. In fact, the word regret has its origins in the Middle English word regrete, meaning to lament or to feel sorrow and, before that, in the Old English word graetan, meaning to weep. Antecedents to regret also appear in Old French as regreter, meaning to long after, to bewail, or to lament someone’s death, and in the Old Norse word grata, meaning to weep or moan. Sorrow, sadness, longing, and grief are such a part of our regrets that the very word means to grieve.
This step acknowledges the legitimate suffering we have endured because of our regrets and allows us to fully and properly grieve our hurt, whatever it is. If we lost a loved one physically through death or emotionally through illness or incapacitation, we feel how deeply that loss has affected us. If we created a scandal, we feel the anguish it caused us and those we love. If we intentionally hurt our spouse in an ugly divorce, we grieve the pain that our cruelty caused.