By Valdemar Gómez García
Don’t Rely Solely on the Past to Define Your Self-Worth.
Before considering whether or not it is useful to reflect on past life events, we must understand the difference between introspection or self-absorption and the examination of conscience.
If introspection is not supported by professional therapy, it will become an exercise of withdrawal or flight into the past. The object of such an exercise is the contemplation of one’s worth or esteem. This exercise is in itself useless, as it does not lead to any personal improvement. Psychological withdrawal or self-absorption leaves only room for oneself. The person who does it remains alone, disengages from reality, and places all hope of perfection and perhaps salvation in self-esteem or self-worth. The problem with this practice is that one ends up contemplating one’s limitations, with the risk of falling into anguish and even guilt when one sees how far one is from reaching the self-imposed and idealized image of oneself.
Special care should be taken not to confuse psychological introspection with the practice of ethical self-reflection or religious examination of conscience. These practices are aimed at improving the human person. Their purpose is not the contemplation of oneself, but the discernment and evaluation of the conformity of one’s actions with the ethical and moral norms of a given society or religion.
The way these practices work can be summed up in the proverb: the tree is known by its fruits. We constantly evaluate our conduct in the face of ethical-moral or religious standards. If we find our conduct does not conform to these standards, we change or make adjustments to our actions to approach moral perfection. Ethical-moral and religious norms, since they do not come from our subjectivity, are capable of purifying the heart (conscience) by shedding light on our true intentions. These norms refer us to a higher moral dignity, thus exercising a therapeutic action by correcting the intentions of the heart, the origin of our actions. They also encourage us to step out of our moral comfort zone.
It is important to note that ethical-moral and religious norms, alien to our subjective imaginary, are not susceptible to psychological manipulation that impoverishes them by equating them with one’s worth. On the other hand, those who are driven by their psychological impulses become the measure of their conduct and are incapable of achieving virtue or character. Self-absorbed, they are at the mercy of mood swings that make them prone to distress, guilt, and shame, for these feelings arise from self-criticism and self-reproach rather than from ethical and religious values.
Torturing ourselves by thinking about past failures and missed opportunities is madness. Ethical and religious norms, on the other hand, anchor us firmly in the present for the future. The desire or ideal for change and self-improvement is already a projection into the future. Morals and religion become, for those who embrace them, ideals of life that structure and guide this change. Although such ideals are above man, they do not alienate him but correspond to the deepest aspirations of his human nature, which urges him with a certain necessity to attain personal perfection.
The self-absorbed person lives in the subjectivity of imagination and memory, a meeting place with the past. In contrast, the centered and level-headed person exists in the present. Our mental health is determined to some extent by our attention and action in the present. The matter of our body makes us experience change or becoming in our psychology and thinking. However, we also experience that we are different from our becoming, as we do not undergo any change in our existence or being. The experience of existing in the present makes us realize that we are different from our past, our memories, and our failures, that we are not our problems. This allows us to heal our wounds. Self-absorption, on the other hand, prevents us from recognizing our existence and our being as something different from the situations and circumstances that cause us pain and sorrow.
Those who judge their past in light of the present run the risk of reproaching and condemning not only their past actions but their whole lives, shaming themselves and becoming morally rigid and discouraged. By “light of the present” we mean the knowledge acquired through study, work, or dealings with good and ethically and morally valuable people, whose examples teach us prudence and wisdom. It also includes improvements in our well-being and spiritual life, and well-used opportunities for self-improvement. In short, everything that has recently contributed to developing in us better judgment and greater prudence that we previously lacked. However prudent we may be, we should not recriminate our past with the light we enjoy in the present; for we never experience the same situation twice in life under the same circumstances.
The past does not change, but we can consider it in light of what we want to achieve in the future. It is not the future that can be changed, but the present. All change takes place in the present. The past becomes a life lesson when viewed in light of a self-improvement project. Past experience seen in the light of an ideal that surpasses us in dignity, will truly build the improved version of ourselves.