After years of listening to people in my counseling office share their own "shouldas, couldas, and wouldas," I decided I'd live to regret it if I didn't write about this topic. Not that I didn't already harbor my own compunctions. I would love to relive plenty of conversations or open doors of opportunities I left closed.
If I could alter decisions I've made about finances or friendships, I certainly would. When it comes to my marriage, I see some irreplaceable moments I wish I could go back in time to replay. Who wouldn't? Every honest person has regrets. I've seen some people poison their lives with regret and guilt while others have let those feelings propel them to a better way of living. The former spend their lives punishing themselves for something they didn't do or feel they should have done differently. If only I'd managed our money better, they say. If only I'd been nicer to my kids. If I hadn't made such a terrible decision.
If only . . .
Whether it's over the road not taken or the one taken too long, "if onlys" can hound a person to death. Literally. Will you look back over your life and be content with how you spent your days? Or will you wrestle with regret and guilt? Let me pose the same question this way: Will you survey your days, your months, your years, and find comfort and grace? Or will you battle a nagging conscience for bemoaning what could have been?
Confronting this crucial question can be a pivotal point in your life. How you eventually answer is determined by whether or not you-right now-are learning from your past to free yourself for your future. Once you seriously consider this question, the truth of its message stares you in the face: either your past is serving as a springboard to a better tomorrow or it is the proverbial albatross around your neck. If guilt and regret are stalking you, it's time you hunt them down and smoke them out. Here's how.
Recognize that "Feeling" Doesn't Always Equal "Fact"
There is a huge difference between feeling guilty and being guilty. If you steal a wristwatch from another person, you are guilty, whether you feel it or not. On the other hand, just because you feel guilty doesn't mean you are guilty.
If the "Feeling" is "Fact," Correct It
You cannot live a radiant, productive life with guilt brewing beneath the surface. If your feelings of condemnation are a sign of true guilt, the only way out from underneath guilt's crushing weight is to correct your actions. You must make amends. The problem of guilt will not disappear until you make it right.
Understand your Unique Conscience
Who said, "Let your conscience be your guide?" It's not found in the Bible. It was actually Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's story of Pinocchio. If you let your conscience be your guide, you may get into trouble. Our consciences do not come prepackaged with the Ten Commandments and the laws passed by government. We learn what to feel guilty about from our parents, teachers, friends, coaches, and dozens of others.
Our consciences are developed through teaching, and sometimes that teaching is faulty. In a sense, people in our lives help us develop our own internal police force ready to arrest the conscience when we violate their particular rules. So when you feel guilty, understand that it could be due to a homegrown and irrational conscience.
Beware of False Alarms
Your internal police force sets off guilt alarms routinely. In some cases, just like with a smoke detector, this alarm can be false. True guilt is the result of wrong behavior. When the guilt is true, the course of action is clear. You need to confess, receive forgiveness, and in some cases, practice restitution. God understands your struggle and is ready and willing to forgive you. To determine if your guilt is true or false, ask yourself: Are my feelings of guilt due to something I can control? If I had to ask forgiveness, what would I ask forgiveness for?
Do I need to ask for forgiveness from any person? If you cannot clearly answer these questions, you are probably struggling with false guilt due to unreasonable expectations. So, take a sweeping survey of your past and pinpoint the significant snag on your conscience that may be keeping you from living fully in the present. Don't let it weigh you down another day.
Embrace God's grace and do whatever you must to make things right. This simple exercise will do more for you than you can imagine. Why? Because moving beyond your past will bring you to who you were truly meant to be.
Les Parrott III, founder of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, is the award-winning author of Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda and many other books. Learn more about his seminar schedule and resources at www.lesandleslie.com.