5 Tools to make looking back at difficult events easier.
If one were to make the unfortunate decision to peer into the dark labyrinth of my brain, one would find a largely empty and dark place. There would be some lit-up sections of thought devoted to my wife, my daughters, martial arts, business, camping, decision-making and other things of interest that I think about often. If you kept looking, however, you would encounter a shadowy and secluded corner, cordoned off with caution tape and boarded up with plywood and covered in cobwebs. There would be signs saying, “Turn back now!” “Danger ahead!” and “Do not enter!”
Inside this dim and frightening cove is a memory so dark and traumatic that I have shared it with only a handful of people, until now.
The year was 1974, and I was 13. We had family friends over, including a 15-year-old girl. Though we had hung out together years earlier, the dynamic was now different.
While the parents hung out in the kitchen, she and I were listening to records in the living room and playing Twister.
I had just spun the spinner which landed on blue, and had the opportunity to bring my hand oh-so-close to hers. Yet as I stood up and bent over to shift my hand to the blue circle, the unimaginable happened.
It was short, staccato, and undeniable. My rescue-mutt Susie was nowhere in sight, so I could only blame myself. It must have been flatulence of the ninja-variety, as it snuck up out of nowhere. There was no warning.
The rest remains a murky and horrible blur.
Having no rock to hide beneath, I sprinted upstairs to my closet, slammed the door behind me, dropped to the floor, fell into a fetal position and began rocking back and forth repeating, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
I suspect I eventually walked back downstairs, but I honestly don’t recall. I may have been in the closet for days.
Thus was created this cordoned-off area of my brain.
FINDING A BETTER WAY OF LOOKING BACK
But why am I baring my soul and sharing one of the most humiliating moments of my younger self?
For the same reason I created The Alternative Response Method (ARM), to be of service to others, to add value to people’s lives, to reduce suffering and increase bliss.
For those of you who are new to my blog and musings, ARM is a powerful new methodology of decision-making captured in my book “The Art of Quality Decision-Making.” When ARM is used by individuals, it teaches them how to manage and overcome challenges; it helps determine who to date or marry, what career path to take, what relationships and jobs to pursue, and which to forgo. For organizations, it provides a framework for how people interact with one another. It provides a template for success by defining “good goals” and a path forward to obtain them.
If you think about it, is there anything more important, more fundamental, than learning to make good decisions?
Stay with me as we transition from a teenage gaffe to exploring some very serious challenges that, to varying degrees, impact us all and degrade the quality of our lives.
There is truth here; and I hope I’ve found a comedic way to discuss something meaningful and, together, you and I, find a better path forward by making better decisions in how we choose to respond to past events which bring us pain.
I share this particular story to highlight one of the most powerful and innovative tools within ARM which I call Looking Back Squared (LB2).
When searching to find a better path forward with ARM, we look back at past events and memories for two reasons, and two reasons only:
- To learn.
- To relive moments of joy.
GUILT, REMORSE AND SHAME ARE INDULGENCES WHICH BENEFIT NO ONE
I began development of LB2 about 30 years ago after reading the following quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”
And I practiced what I preached in raising my children. As is the case with all children, they misbehave. That’s their job. Children are genetically and evolutionarily designed to misbehave so that they can learn the boundaries of whatever society, class or culture in which they find themselves. Their behavior, in essence, is like water – trying to fill the shape of the container in which it finds itself.
Parents’ jobs are to help children learn the parameters and rules of the tribe, initially through discipline and, as they get older, through guidance and advice.
When my wife and I needed to discipline our girls, we did so in the least uncomfortable manner possible. Just enough to obtain the desired modification of behavior. Inevitably, children will feel badly or guilty about misbehaving.
My admonition was always the same. “There is no value in guilt. I’m not angry at all. Your job is to occasionally misbehave, my job is to provide guidance. We are both just doing our jobs.” And this was the most important part, “You have nothing to feel guilty about. Guilt adds no value to anything.”
The same is true within business. I have clients who remain haunted by decisions made years ago and they tend to pick at them like the scab of an ever-bothersome wound.
Whenever we are faced with “backwards-looking” memories that fall into the category of remorse, guilt, regret, embarrassment, and shame (I address grief below*), I would pose the following question:
What value is there in reliving those moments and revisiting those feelings?
The whole point of ARM is that we want to manage the direction of our lives intellectually and strategically. This includes managing how our minds wander. And when they wander into a thicket of unhealthy emotions, we want to strategically shift our minds to think differently.
BE THE TREE, NOT THE LEAF
We don’t want to be a leaf blowing in the wind, but rather the tree, bending and enduring.
Can you tell me what value there is in feeling guilty or regretful about something other than, for the briefest of moments, to learn to do better?
We do not want to be held hostage or constrained by emotions which do not have our best interest at heart – which do not teach us or lead us to happier lives full of service and kindness.
And we start by being more kind to ourselves in how we look back.
Which brings us back to that ill-fated evening of the twister fart. I used that memory to find a way to revisit it without embarrassment. I used a variety of ARM tools to reframe the moment so that it no longer holds any sway over me, even when writing about it here.
5 TOOLS TO MAKE LOOKING BACK AT DIFFICULT EVENTS EASIER
- Understand the irrationality of feeling guilty, regretful, or shameful of something that you have absolutely no control over. This is hard, yet true. If we have made all good faith efforts to repair our misdeed, then what value is there in dwelling on it? In some cases, the errant decision seemed like the right thing to do at the time, with the information you had at the moment. In other cases, it may have been bad judgement or carelessness, or perhaps you had a moment in which you were intentionally unkind or knowingly made poor decisions. In all cases, there is no going back in time, as time moves in only one direction. Make amends, forgive yourself, and move forward.
- Benchmark (covered in my first blog in this series on How We Do “Hard”). In looking back, it’s always likely that whatever happened could have been far worse. In benchmarking we look at a situation on both sides, of how something could have been better, or worse. We get to choose in what direction we benchmark.
- Reframe the event. In looking at my twister game, I played around with a variety of tools while visiting the memory until I found one that reframed the event for me. I thought it could have been worse. I thought she probably thought it was funny and was likely equally as embarrassed. I played around with various “thought games” until I found a notion that worked. I pretended that the scene was from a movie, a comedy. Where the audience laughs at the harmless mishap, while at the same time being sympathetic to the boy.
- Self-coach. Take whatever memory or event you want to address and pretend that a close friend came to you with the same problem. Ask yourself what you would say to them. What supportive, loving and kind words would you share to ease their pain, guilt, or sorrow. Write them down, and then read them to yourself.
- Do better next time. Be patient with yourself. Our brains are designed to focus on things that go badly or are threats of some kind in order to, evolutionarily, keep us safe. 50,000 years ago, guilt kept us from hurting one another. Shame kept us behaving within the norms of the group. Regret teaches us how to behave differently the next time a similar situation arises. But we must cleave the negative emotions from the desired results of the emotions – which is simply to do better next time.
*A note about grief:
Grief is its own unique category. Grief will visit us all. It is part of the human condition. A key component of grief is that it will take time for it to recede. But even in grief, we have some control over how we choose to respond. We can think and use ARM and other tools to reframe the loss of a loved one. We can remember good moments, stories and memories and bring in other strategies to find peace and ease our pain over time.
Harboring and cultivating guilt, remorse and even grief is also not good for one’s health. There is data to support that yes, you can indeed die from a broken heart.
Think back to a lighthearted moment of embarrassment, or a more serious memory that you find challenging, and which keeps coming up. Use the five tools as the beginning of the process of reframing past events which you find difficult. If you like, share what you discover in the comments below, where I, and others, can comment and together, we can brainstorm to find tools to make our lives just a little bit better.
These blogs are 100% for your benefit. Please shoot me an email or drop a comment below including any ideas about future posts.
Stay tuned for next week’s third part of our five-part series on How we do Hard: Preponderance of Kindness