“One of the most important functions of the mind is to transform hindsight into foresight.”

Recently I carefully reviewed my book Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be, in order to prepare it to become an e-book. (Now available on
Amazon Kindle.)

I came across a section on guilt and values conflicts that I think may be of particular interest. I have modified it only slightly so that it reads more smoothly as a “stand-alone” piece:

Excerpt from Transforming Your Self, chapter 8, “Transforming Mistakes”:

Often people experience conflicts between different values in certain situations. “I want to be kind, but I also want to be honest. I want to be honest, but I also want to have friends. It seems like whatever I do, I end up criticizing myself and feeling guilty for not upholding the value that gets ignored.”

If you ever find yourself thinking like this, try a ridiculously simple change that can have a profound impact — replace the word “but” with “and.” “I want to be kind, and I want to be honest.” “I want to be honest, and I also want to have friends.” “But” separates experiences, which creates personal fragmentation, and tends to erase or discard whatever precedes the “but.” “And” joins experiences and acknowledges both, which is a very useful first step toward integration.

We often find ourselves making choices between values, and guilt is a common troubling experience that results from this. There are several ways to resolve guilt; in order for you to have a felt experience of them, I’d like you to think of a time when you did something that harmed someone else, and now you feel guilty. . . .

When you feel guilty about harming someone, that means that you violated one or more of your own values in some way. I’d like you to reexamine that incident and identify the harm that you caused someone else, and also identify the value (or values) that you violated. . . .

One of the first things to realize is that the strength of your bad feelings is an indication of the importance to you of the value that you violated — if it didn’t matter to you, you wouldn’t have any feelings about it at all. So even though the feelings of guilt or disappointment are unpleasant, they are an indication of how much you value that quality, and are committed to it, so you can feel good about the strength of your value. (This is an example of the usefulness of moving up a logical level.)

An even more important measure of the strength of your commitment to the value is your willingness to apologize, make amends, or compensate somehow for the harm that you caused. So one thing you can do is to take a few minutes to consider the situation fully, in all its aspects, and decide now what kind of appropriate apology or compensation you are willing to make. “What could I do to make amends or compensate for what I did?” Perhaps you might want to talk to that person and find out what kind of amends they think would be appropriate. If that person is dead or otherwise not available, how could you make amends to someone else in the same or similar position?. . .

Wallowing in guilt usually has no impact on future behavior other than feeling bad, which helps no one. Willingness to take action to compensate for what you have done is a lot more convincing, and a lot more useful, than just feeling guilty, and it can also heal the separation and bad feelings between you and that other person. If you are willing to make a firm commitment to make amends in some way, that will further strengthen your sense of this value, and simultaneously reduce your feelings of guilt. Pause now to consider what you are willing to do, and decide on some action to take. . . .

On the other hand, if you find that you’re not willing to take some sigificant action to make amends, then you can realize that the harm you caused someone else is really not that important to you. Since it doesn’t violate any significant value of yours, there is no need to condemn yourself and feel bad about it.

Now I want you to think again of the incident in which you harmed someone else, and ask a very interesting question: “Given my perception and understanding of the situation at that time, was there a more important value that I was actually following?” . . .

Sometimes you weren’t following a higher value. Sometimes you just made a simple mistake, or misunderstood the situation, or didn’t fully realize the consequences of your actions. But at other times you were faced with a very difficult decision, and whatever you did, you couldn’t follow one or more of your values. When that happens, people often focus narrowly on the value that was not followed, and feel terrible.

It can be very helpful to see both the value that you followed and the value that you didn’t follow, widening the scope of your thinking. “Oh, I really am a person who follows through on my values. It’s just that I was faced with conflicting values. I followed the one that was more important to me, and I couldn’t find a way to follow the other one at the same time.”

That is a much more balanced and resourceful state than guilt, and it is one that makes it a lot easier to examine the situation without self-judgment, and begin a search for ways that you could express both values if you are ever faced with a similar situation in the future.

“How do I wish I had responded in that event? How would I like to respond if that kind of situation ever happens to me again in the future? What personal resource would make it possible for me to manifest both these values, even in those situations in which I previously felt I had to choose between them?”

You can use the thoughts and images that emerge in response to these questions to transform that guilty memory into something more useful and satisfactory to you. You can use simple “videotape-editing,” taking that movie memory into your private editing room, and changing it until you are satisfied with it. You can use the “change personal history” pattern in which you access appropriate personal resources and integrate them into that unsatisfactory experience so that it becomes one that you like. Or you can use any other change method you know to transform that example of guilt into an example of what you wish you had done in the past, and would like to do if that kind of situation happened in the future. . . .

Keep in mind that every change process should include a congruence check, to be sure that the change fits with all your other values. When you are satisfied with the results of this process, imagine a similar future situation that might arise, and put the transformed memory into your future, making sure that it is linked to the cues that you will experience in the time and place that you want it to happen, and that it is vivid enough to draw your attention when and if that kind of situation happens. (For more detail on how to do this, see my earlier blog post, “Programming yourself now to remember later.”

If you’d like to read the complete e-book, you can order here:
Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be, on Amazon Kindle

Steve will be presenting 3 workshops at the Psychotherapy Networker Conference in Washington DC, March 21-24, 2013
March 22: Changes that Work, 4 hours
March 23: From Anger to Forgiveness, 2 hours
March 24: Transforming Your Inner Trash-talker, 3 hours

Research Digest: this is a Free weekly blog summary of recent psychology research. I usually find something interesting each week.