Stress Mastery: Three Silly Shoulds, Part 3—“I Should Have Known Better”

by Doc Orman, M.D.

Manolete

Today is the final installment in this week’s three-part series on three very common internal causes of human stress.  These are three “should” statements that often make us feel bad, but that have little to do with reality.

Here are the three topics we’ve been focused on in this series:

“I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way.”

“I Shouldn’t Have Done What I Did.”

“I Should Have Known Better.”

Two Big Stress-Generating Tendencies

The last of our three should, just like the other two, reveals two huge sources of stress for human beings:

  • Looking Back on Past Events With Regret
  • Either/Or Thinking

There is rarely a good reason to look back on anything in the past negatively. I know this is a very common tendency, and everybody does it…but that doesn’t mean it is wise.

Once something has happened…it has happened.  End of story (real story that is). We are all free to look back and make up any additional stories that we want about whatever happened, but why would you want to make up a negative one?

Given you always have a choice, why wouldn’t you want to make up a more positive story?  Not a story that ignores the realities about whatever happened and any consequences that occurred…but a story that puts the best positive spin on it as possible.  After all, you are the author of your own stories, so why not make up ones that keep you from feeling bad instead of stories that make you feel bad?

Did You Really Make A Mistake?

When we look back on past events and say to ourselves “I should have known better”—what are we really doing?  Well, we are looking backwards (rather than forwards) and we are doing so with regret.   In other words, we are judging our actions negatively and assuming that we should have known enough (from past experiences and wisdom) to have done something different.

But is this really true? And even if it appears to be true, is it the whole truth or only part of the truth?  Here is where we commit our second deadly sin—we look back on our past behavior from an either/or perspective.  In other words, we look back from a completely negative frame and never even consider that there could be other equally valid but more positive perspectives from which to judge our past behavior.

For example, what if part of us (usually an unconscious part) really did want to do exactly what we did?  In other words, what if what we did wasn’t really a mistake at all?

I know this sounds unrealistic, but Freud didn’t think so.  He posited that no human behavior is motivated by negative intent.  Instead, he chose to believe that everything we do is orchestrated, either consciously or unconsciously, by some type of positive motivation.

Say for example, you try to point out to a loved one that they are heading down a path that’s going to bring them failure and grief.  No matter how you phrase your warning, the other person reacts in an angry, unreceptive manner, which has now caused a problem in the relationship.

You can look back on your decision to say something and conclude “I definitely should have known better than to attempt this.”  After all, you may have known this person for many years and have witnessed many past experiences of them not being open to helpful input from others.

But what if there was another part of you that secretly believed “this is way too important to keep silent about.”  Say you correctly assessed that the chances of success were very low, but you needed to sound an alarm anyway.  After all, the other person was definitely going to hear your point of view, and even if they rejected it, it could still have an effect on them later on.

You see what I mean?  It’s just as easy to look back on things positively as it is to look back on them negatively.  The only difference, in most cases, is that you don’t have to exert any effort to look at things negatively—this tendency has already been programmed into you since childhood.  To look back at the very same events from a positive frame of reference, on the other hand, takes conscious intent—and not everyone is skilled at doing this.

Looking At “Pathology”

Here’s one of my favorite stories that I want to close this discussion with. It’s from controversial psychologist James Hillman, who points out that you could just as easily take a negative viewpoint about perceived “pathology” and view it as something positive and potentially uplifting instead.  He talks about the famous Spanish matador Manolete, who is considered one of the greatest, most fearless bullfighters of all time.  But as a child, he was shy, anxious and he would cling to his mother’s skirt whenever other people came around.

Hillman argues that you could take the conventional view of this childhood pattern of behavior and label it a disorder (i.e. view it as something negative).  On the other hand, what if there was a part of Manolete, even as a young child, who somehow “knew” he was destined to do great and scary things with his life?  If you knew at a very young age that you were going to go battle ferocious and dangerous wild animals every day…wouldn’t you be a tad anxious at say the age of 5?

Just a wild thought…that you can look at things in many different ways…and there may be some truth in many of the many different ways you can choose.

In closing, here’s a short video clip of James Hillman you might enjoy viewing.

NOTE: For more information about my unique approach to eliminating stress, please visit http://stressmasteryacademy.com

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