Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reframing the Past: The Barriers of Guilt and Fear

For over 20 years, I have worked with orphanages in Africa. One of the things I am constantly amazed by is how so many of these children are filled with a sense of belonging to a family. Rather than constantly being in fear that they will be abandoned again sometime in the future, they have chosen to embrace the gift of familial love with the other children and caretakers with whom they are now living. Choosing to focus on the love and care that they are receiving, past traumas are placed in a different frame. It is not that they will ever forget what happened to them, but how they are now focusing on all the good that has come their way because of or in spite of their past.

Two women, both had cancer: one of them chooses to live in fear, the other grabs each breath and squeezes out of it every bit of life and joy possible.

Two men, both had businesses that went bankrupt: one experiences the failure as commentary by God on his worth, the other embraces the failure, mining for wisdom, so as to be successful the next time he rolls the dice.

You were betrayed by a loved one or a business partner: What do you do?

a Never trust anyone again
      b Choose to learn to live and love with knowledge and discernment
      c Pretend it never happened

In dealing with past traumas and failures, many people choose c: Pretend it never happened. Maybe they live in all-out denial or refer to their past selves in second person -- “she” was so abused, “he” was such an idiot. Some people re-write the facts of their past, so as to protect themselves from guilt or fear. Whatever the ruse we choose to use, the past remains what it was. Yes, I can evade reality: I simply cannot evade the consequences of evading reality. (Ayn Rand)
The first step to future freedom, health and success is to embrace reality: you blew it, he failed you, she stole from you, or they abandoned you. Reality can be harsh: evasion is deadly. Your personal power  is going to come through grasping reality, not through pretending it wasn’t what it was or isn’t what it is.
Reframing our pasts isn’t the same as lying to our selves about the facts of our pasts. Reframing our pasts so that it empowers us for our future requires that we first deal with the facts. Caca happened, and try as you might to pretend it didn’t, that doesn’t stop the stench that is possibly presently emanating from your life.

Guilt and Fear
In my 40-years of experience as a counselor and coach, I have discovered that the two reasons that most often keep people from facing reality is Guilt and Fear.

If I face the facts of my past …
I will see that I was guilty
I will see that I didn’t do what I promised to
I will see that I could have done better, behaved with more integrity
I will see that I lied/cheated/betrayed
I will see that I was foolish

            Please note that each of these responses is an interpretation of the facts, not the fact itself. The Facts of an event are not synonymous with the Truth of the event. Yes, you may discover all these “failures” are an accurate interpretation: The Truth of what happened. Or you may not.
“Guilt” is an objective reality -- or so I believe. You broke the law or you didn’t. You broke one of the Ten Commandments or you didn’t. You failed to keep your Code of Honor. You broke the laws of love or you didn’t. Just because someone’s feelings were hurt, doesn’t mean you failed. After all, “feelings” are not the standard of morality!
            In evaluating the facts, if you see that, yes, you failed to keep your word, tell the truth, respect the dignity of others, or whatever: Own It. Reframing lies are of no use to people who wish to own their power. Calling my caca “manna from heaven” doesn’t fool anyone and only serves to create the possibility of producing more caca in your future.

Guilt is debilitating, leaving us with little faith and hope for our future.

Guilt over the past creates a lens through which we look at and evaluate our present and future.

Guilty people are easily manipulated. Governments have known this for a long time: make the citizens feel guilty for x and they will gladly accept higher taxes to pay for their “sins.” Children have also been known to master this same tactic!

            By the way, I strongly recommend that, when looking at the facts of your past, that you share your story with respected and trusted friends. Seeing your story through the eyes of another person can bring immense wisdom and insight. Just tell the story, the entire story: don’t interpret and judge as you share your experience. And then listen to your friend’s take on what happened.
            If you do discover guilt, own it and ask forgiveness: if it all possible face-to-face. If you can’t do this, call him or her on the phone. Writing emails or letters and asking forgiveness are dicey propositions, as they are so easily misinterpreted. When you ask forgiveness, be sure to not add any you-a-culpas. Keep to mea culpas. Casting blame on others – I know I failed, but you set me up by doing what you did – is an equivocation that communicates self-justification. “I wouldn’t have failed had you not failed.” Also, no buts: “I did this and ask your forgiveness but …” Whenever you use the word “but” it negates everything that went before that word. Finally (for now!), ask forgiveness to the depth of the actual failure, being specific about your failures: “I did this, that, and the other.” Generalities are equivocations.
Once you ask forgiveness, let it go. Even if the individual chooses to not forgive, that is his issue. Do not allow the lack of forgiveness of others to leverage your health and happiness. If you need to and can make amends or restitution, of course you should. However, do this out of love not a drive to make up for your failures. After all, you can’t “make up” for failures, you can only be forgiven. (For a more extensive take on moral failures I highly recommend you read “The Ill-Made Knight,” a chapter in that now classic book, Legendary Leadership.)

            The other major barrier to dealing with the facts of our past is Fear. I will write about this in my next blog.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2012

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