Guilt is probably the most insidious resident of the comfort zone. Most people think the worst one is fear. It's probably true that fear is the most noticeable limiting emotion. Guilt, however, is often more powerful because it can be so hidden.
Fear increases as we come closer and closer to actually doing the thing we're afraid to do. Let's say we're afraid of walking up to a stranger in a supermarket and saying, "Hello." We have decided that meeting strangers is a necessary part of reaching our Dream (a Marriage/Family dream, for example). So, the next "perfect stranger" we see in a public place--we committed to walk up and say, "Hello, I'd like to meet you."
There's the stranger and here we are, with nothing between us but the canned peas. Emotion: fear. No, it's not excitement--no matter how many times we've read the chapter, "Fear is the Energy to Do Your Best in a New Situation." This is a new situation, and this is fear--panic.
We know, however, that we must do this. We have gone over it and over it in our mind and with supportive friends. This may or may not be our perfect stranger, but this is the perfect opportunity to "move through fear," to "feel the fear and do it anyway."
No matter what happens, at least we will have learned to meet new people, so that some enchanted evening, if we see a stranger across a crowded room, we can fly to his side and make him our own, so that all through our life we won't dream all alone.
We take one step in the direction of the stranger. The stranger's head moves--maybe to look at us! We grab a can of peas and begin studying the label intensely.
This is silly, we tell ourselves. We are an adult. We are committed. The blood courses in our ears. Our heart is pounding. We take charge of the situation, and we act.
"Do you think these peas are as good as the ones on sale?" we ask the stranger.
"Gee, I don't know," the stranger replies. "I only buy fresh peas myself." We notice the stranger is wearing a wedding ring. Hmmm. Not the perfect stranger after all. "Oh, of course," we smile. "Thank you."
That's a fairly typical move-through-fear situation. Before it, we can pep-talk ourselves, and we can rah-rah our way through it. We can physically feel the comfort zone becoming more and more dense as we begin doing the thing we're afraid to do. That's all fear.
Guilt is all the rest we live with after.
Guilt berates us for moving through the fear. We are reminded of a story on the news about someone meeting another person in a supermarket and the terrible result of that meeting that could have happened to us. Guilt projects an endless succession of "What-ifs" across our inner nightmare gallery.
If we don't give in to the chatterings that we shouldn't have done it in the first place--if we hold firmly to the idea that walking up to strangers and meeting them is part of our Dream, and that we're going to continue doing it no matter what guilt says--then the guilt changes its tack.
"Why didn't you see that the stranger was wearing a wedding ring?" guilt asks. "Why aren't you more observant? You went through all that for nothing. Besides, your commitment was to say, `Hello, I'd like to meet you,' not to discuss canned vegetables. You can't even do that right."
And on and on.
If the guilt gets us and we agree to abide by the limitation "next time," guilt floods us with positive feelings. We feel a sense of freedom and joy that parallels enlightenment. Euphoric feelings reign.
"Of course," we say, "this restriction is me. I choose to have it. It's part of who I am." With each statement of limitation, we soar higher and higher. Guilt cannot only make us feel terrible; it can also make us feel wonderful.
Guilt is a trainer with both sugar cubes and a cattle prod. When we toe the mark--the confines of the comfort zone--we get sweetness. When we "overstep our bounds," we get punished.
The next time we don't walk up to a stranger, we are rewarded with a good feeling and a pep talk.We are proud of our limitation. This is the booby prize of life--complacency tinged with self-righteousness.
So, how do we use guilt for ourselves? As the old Hindu saying goes, "It takes a thorn to remove a thorn," or, as we say in the West, "Fight fire with fire." Start feeling guilty when you don't take steps toward your Dream. Feel all those guilt-things when you honor the comfort zone.
Yes, for a while, this will put you in a lot of dammed-if-I-do-and-dammed-if-I-don't situations--you're going to feel guilty no matter how you act. Eventually, however, guilt will be as staunch an ally to your Dream as it currently is to your comfort zone.
While you're reprogramming your guilt, external support comes in handy--a friend, counselor, therapist, or support group--to encourage you to continue taking risks, to continue moving toward your Dream.
Responsibility is a misunderstood word. Most people use it to mean blame . "Who's responsible for this?" means "Who's to blame for this? Whom can I punish?"
We are experts at finding blame. We blame others for not making us happy, for letting us down, for not fulfilling our dreams. If people become involved in personal growth or therapy of some kind, they often don't become more responsible--they just find new things to blame. Childhood! Parents! Heredity! Environment! Let's blame our parents for programming us to blame others, shall we?
Enough! It's time to grow up. If we want to play adult games--like living our Dream--we must play by adult rules. One of the primary adult rules: We are individually responsible for our own lives.
Responsibility simply means, "the ability to respond." In any of life's challenges, opportunities, or disasters, we can respond in whatever way we choose. Our response dictates what life hands us next. Our response is either a workable response (it takes us one step closer to our goal) or an unworkable response (it does not take us one step closer to our goal).
It's not a matter of right/wrong, good/bad. It's a matter of practical analysis of the situation. From that situation, we have the ability to respond again. When the outcome of that is known, we will either be closer to, or farther from, our goal. Then we have the ability to respond to that.
And so it goes. The one common denominator in our lives, as adults, is us. In everything we experience, there is one person who is always there. It's not Mommy and it's not Daddy--it's us.
In addition to what we can do physically about a situation, we also have the ability to choose what our inner response to that situation is.
This is a big one. It sounds like a radical new idea, but it's not. It's centuries old. The idea is this: We control our emotional reaction to the external environment--the external environment doesn't.
Dr. Albert Ellis has been a major proponent of this theory in our time. The title alone of one of his books activates comfort zones: How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything--Yes, Anything! East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021. (212) 535-0822.>
I'm not talking here about significant losses. I'm talking about the daily slings-and-arrows for which we feel quite justified in blaming someone or something outside ourselves. Yes, it was the milkman's fault the milk wasn't delivered, but our negative inner reaction to that situation is our own.
Are we going to cry over undelivered milk? If we really want the milk, we're going to have to make alternate arrangements, and those arrangements are going to have to be made regardless of how miserable we make ourselves.
This is a big concept. It challenges us in a fundamental way. To reeducate ourselves is not easy. Our culture supports and encourages our deeply rooted programming that what happens "out there" is directly connected to what happens "in here." (See? I just blamed the culture for making it difficult.)
Please remember: it is okay to feel good when things go bad. Being content, satisfied, and joyful no matter what happens is a radical concept--but it's also a basic rule of adult life.
Without this rule--to at least try to follow--we live in a land of Victims and Victors, of endless finger-pointing and name-calling. Even if we can affix blame, so what? If we need to get the milk, we need to get the milk. If you want to fulfill your Dream, look more for "What's next?" than "Who's wrong?"
ROSE: Oh, Blanche, we don't have anything to worry about. If we give that baby love and attention and understanding, it'll turn out fine.
DOROTHY: That's beautiful.
ROSE: Besides, what does Spock know about raising babies? On Vulcan, all the kids are born in pods.
THE GOLDEN GIRLS
Our inner life reflects our outer, and our outer life reflects our inner. I suggest making changes in both. When a situation arises, ask yourself, "What response can I make--inner, outer, or both--that would get me closer to my goal?" These are more useful questions than, "Whom can I punish?" (Most often, the answer to "Whom can I punish?" is ourselves. It's guilt's favorite question.)
Start by forgiving your parents. They didn't have a manual on raising kids--not a complete one, anyway. Besides, they didn't raise us; we raised us. We chose from all that happened to us to sink or swim, rise or fall. Many great people--however you'd like to define the word great--had childhoods more miserable than ours, and somehow they managed to be great.
We have the same opportunities for greatness. They happen every day, every minute. Do we learn a lesson, or blame the teacher? The teacher could be a flat tire, a broken agreement, or undelivered milk. Do we look into the mirror and change ourselves, or do we break it? Do we pursue our Dream, or have all the reasonable reasons why not?
It's important, however, not to become a victim of never seeing yourself as a victim. If a company cheats you out of a large sum of money, get your money back . Certainly learn the lesson about how not to be cheated in the future, but get your money back .
As with all ideas in this book: balance.
Copyright © 1991-1996 Prelude Press & Peter McWilliams