13: Demeaning Ourself

Everyone makes mistakes and misses important opportunities. Many of our attempts to achieve end in defeat. All of us regret many things we did or failed to do. And we often are sorry that we spoke certain words—at least in the tone we used. None of us is immune to an occasional blunder or misstep.

Mistakes are part of life and definitely part of any learning curve. Dealing with them is an obligation for every mature person. However, feeling guilty about any of them is a choice. When our legitimate concern turns to guilt and self-loathing, we risk doing major damage to our confidence and ability to act appropriately. We need to find a healthy way to cope with the faults and failures we perceive in our life without damaging ourself.

The problem of excessive guilt is most acute in people who are conscientious, have a strong sense of responsibility, and are overly sensitive to the opinions of others. It is more likely to be found in those whose early years were lived in an environment that emphasized strict rules, rigid standards, and more disapproval than approval. Regardless of how excessive guilt begins, it remains a major problem for many people—especially where the damage to our well-being is unrecognized.

Part of the confusion about guilt stems from our culture that stresses both the need to be accountable and rejects any hint of pride. This sets the stage for concentrating too much of our faults and too little of our strengths and achievements. The result can be a distorted view of ourself and what we do. Unless we correct this perspective we will likely be excessively critical of our worth. When we set our psychic radar to search enthusiastically for mistakes, faults, and failures, we generate a habit of disparaging our abilities and triumphs. This tendency will create cascade after cascade of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness. Guilt is a major tool for psychic self-destruction.

Significant accumulations of guilt do not accrue unless we participate in inflicting this dark mood on ourself. There may be a whole chorus of nasty people heaping criticism on us, but this can only harm us if we accept their accusations and believe them. The degree of guilt that can cripple our well-being can only occur if we convince ourself that we are fatally flawed and our knowledge and performance is severely defective.

Should we accept their criticism, we are allowing an enemy to take up residence in the core of what we believe about ourself. Thereafter our inner critic— the voice of our conscience—will expand and intensify. We will eagerly search for any flaws in what we do. We will be even more diligent about remembering and reliving highlights of past failures and embarrassments. This is how we use misery magnets and magnifiers to build up huge amounts of guilt that can damage everything we are and do.

When we look at life through the lens of guilt, we will notice every flaw in our character and behavior. We will also likely ignore many of our strengths and achievements that could compensate for old disasters. Even after we have solved the problems and learned the lessons of old mistakes we may continue to berate ourself for those misjudgments and failures.

At this point our misery magnifiers are working at top speed to preserve all guilt. It could take ten or more successes to neutralize one failure—and it may not even seem possible. Our bodyguards of guilt will often overwhelm logic and facts to remind us that many of our mistakes are unpardonable sins that can never be undone. We must wear the mark of being unworthy and undeserving forever and ever.

As we become beaten down, we also become more hesitant and doubtful about our skills and possibilities. Avoiding embarrassment and failure becomes more important than engaging in our opportunities and being productive. We no longer trust ourself to take on big tasks. We hold back in relationships for fear that we will disappoint others as well as ourself. Our world turns to shades of gray and brown, and our joy in living slips away. This is how the mood of guilt eventually infects every part of our character and lifestyle, suppressing our creativity, destroying our enthusiasm, and eliminating self-confidence.

Indeed, the force of guilt can create a virtual prison for us that traps our humanity and spirit inside its continual belief that we are inadequate in so many areas. Many people truly come to believe that they have failed so often and at so many important tasks that there is no way they can redeem themselves. They are doomed to a perpetual state of being inferior—worthless and undeserving in so many areas.

Such beliefs will guarantee that we will live a life that is far less happy and successful than it could be. Our relationships will be drab and mundane. We will feel unfulfilled in almost all areas of our life. When we experience success, we may fail to recognize its value to us. When we have a happy day, we will be certain that it will not last. Our thinking is so warped that we do not allow ourself to take credit for our achievement or expect more of the same.

Many people enter this destructive state of guilt for short periods, but snap out of it as common sense and confidence returns. Others, however, keep reentering this dark realm of self-destruction until they never fully leave. The weight of each perceived failure and fault will not let them.

We can always reverse our descent into this veritable hell of self-loathing. We just need to resurrect some of our confidence, curiosity, and creativity— and recognize that a mistake is not a failure until we repeat it. A personal fault is not a sign of incompetence unless we refuse to correct it. An embarrassing moment is not unpardonable if we learn from it. Confidence helps us to look beyond the surface of events to discern our unrealized human and spiritual possibilities. Curiosity helps us find them. Creativity helps us develop and apply them.

Just as excessive guilt cannot exist without our participation, so also the liberation of confidence, enthusiasm, and constructive behavior cannot happen without our skillful effort. Passively waiting for someone to rescue us is not an effective technique. We must dissolve the dark cloud of guilt in order to restore confidence and pride in ourself and what we do. This is the approach that neutralizes excessive guilt and prevents its return.

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