Mistaken Identity

I am reminded of just how hard it can be to recall situations in which our own behavior might have been the cause of a problem, and not the voice of reason. Situations that we wish we had handled with more maturity, more insight, more integrity. Sometimes, we use our mistakes as an excuse to feel bad, to be immobilized by past choices so that we don't have to make new ones. Sometimes, we ignore our role in the drama, forgetting that it takes at least two people to have an interaction. Sometimes, we simply forget that the event ever occurred at all.

It is easier to forget, or fail to identify our role in our own suffering and dis-ease, than it is to work through our own contributions to a situation, and find new tools and apply new knowledge or new skills to making it right in the here and now. Hindsight is often 20/20, as the saying goes. But there's more to it than that. As with the alcoholic's 12-step program that includes a stage of making amends with past wrongs-- personal healing for ANY past transgression requires that we acknowledge and make peace with our own behavior and fear and choices and mistakes.

Sometimes this includes sharing our new awareness with the people we negatively affected in the past. Often, it is more a matter of re-visioning current choices and awareness in light of what has come before.

Did you know you had food allergies? No? Do you know it now? So if someone tries to impress you by serving a food you are terribly allergic to, you can have a new reaction than the one that so hurt your partner ten years ago when you rejected not only the food that made you ill, but every food that person offered you for the rest of your weekend together. And the person ended up feeling rejected in the process.

It is not wrong to protect yourself from illness. But it is more right to say to your partner, "I've recently tested for food allergies, and discovered that I have several. I don't like to make a big deal out of it, so there is no way you could have known I'm allergic to XYZ. I really feel loved that you did all this for me. I'm really going to enjoy ABC that are here on the table, too. Thank you!"

The first time I ever had a panic attack, I didn't know what one was. I'd never seen one, felt one, or heard a story in which the label was followed by a description of symptoms. I was 19, and I was alone with my first boyfriend in a cabin in the Alaskan Wilderness. I thought I was experiencing food poisoning, which I also didn't know much about. And I blamed my boyfriend, who'd packed the food.

Now, looking back, I realize that many of our uncomfortable interactions that weekend following my racing heart, cold sweat, inability to speak with out shaking and stuttering, inability to catch my shallow breath, and absolute panic, were a result of the blame I placed on him for that poisonous moment. I realize now that it was a panic attack, and had nothing to do with the food. And I would like to go back and make a different choice with the knowledge and tools I now have.

But the thing is-- I didn't have that knowledge or those tools at the time!! I didn't even know that food often made me ill because I had food allergies and chemical sensitivities that had never been diagnosed. I was simply leery of new foods, or of any situation in which I felt ill after eating. So now, I can make a different choice. I can be aware of how foods and chemicals affect me sometimes, and I can check in with my body and my self-awareness to see if I'm feeling my tummy clench because of food, because of stress, because of an emotion I'm trying to repress, or for some other unknown reason. I don't have to make the same assumptions I made when I was 19 and scared of anything new.

Life moves forward. It is a beautiful thing when we can move forward with our lives. Acknowledging past mistakes, but also taking steps to improve our relationship with the world in the present-- and in the future. It is our work toward self-improvement that allows us to step away from guilt and isolation and a fear of choices and changes. By choosing to put in the hard work, by choosing to learn that we do have room for improvement, by taking steps forward with our behavior and our knowledge and our tools, we make amends for the problems we once created in our own and other peoples' lives. But we bring the lessons learned with us.

I know a lot of people who would rather not look back. Who believe that thinking about past times when things didn't go the way they wanted is a waste of the present. Who refuse to acknowledge any regrets. People who refuse to feel bad about any choice they make because they are too busy doing the best they can in any given present. These people have an amazing capacity for pleasure, and for happiness. But they live very transient lives.

We build a better future by creating a solid foundation of our past, and taking old lessons into current situations so that we build better with every new experience and every new joy we encounter. If we refuse to examine our past for clues to improving our present, we simply jump from situation to situation, and as soon as a situation looks difficult or painful, we leave it behind. No regrets, right? But no regrets mean no opportunities to change or improve our add to our interpersonal tools. I don't advocate walking around with a basket of guilt and pain on your back. And I don't recommend beating yourself up about things you have no control to fix or change. But abdicating responsibility for making yourself a better person-- abdicating responsibility for your own role in any given interaction-- it's selfish, and it's very short-term thinking. Really.

I believe that examining a pattern that we repeat can give us clues about WHY we repeat it, or what we are looking for when we get into those situations and relationships over and over again. Once we know more about why something uncomfortable happens over and over in our lives, we can re-vision our personal goals and needs. We can learn better and healthier ways to get what we want. We can begin to heal the wounds we often refuse to admit exist. We can move forward with more tools and greater self-knowledge, so that our next choice comes closer to actually reaching our long-term personal bliss.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a solid foundation for your hopes and dreams to build on? The best way to do that is to examine the bricks of experience you've already laid down, and to understand better and more skillful ways of applying your tools as you reach for your personal goal of happiness and fulfillment. True joy is based on a tripod of self-love, and self-knowledge, and self-respect. These things require of us that we know not only what we want in any given moment, but also how far we've already come to get it.