One of the themes continuously brought to me in session is that of regret. Mistakes. A decision or surrounded by shame. A little shame-sandwich, if you will. Now, regret can be a good thing to a certain extent–when it evokes productive guilt and teaches us something we can carry forward. But, when it keeps us up at night, causes shame and anxiety, it’s no longer productive. Working through regret is an active process–it’s not something you transform in one sitting; however, these tips might allow you to see your past errors through a different lens:
1. It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time:
You know that saying, “Hindsight is 20/20?” Well, as much as I don’t love cliches, they do come from general observations about human behaviour (and thus say something about our universal experiences in life). This one exists because no one can fully and accurately know the outcome of their decisions until after the fact. We make our decisions based on the the information we have at the time. We don’t know what’s going to happen following. We don’t know if we’re going to hate our job, or wish we’d treated our ex better, or wish we hadn’t had that tuna sandwich. We just don’t know. Upon experiencing the outcome that we then experience, we learn.
2.You Might Not Be Aware of the Ripples:
Did you ever see the movie “The Butterfly Effect?” Well, I did, and I forget most of it, but I remember being aware of two things: 1) Recognizing Koerner Library in one of the scenes (shout out to UBC. This is not important), and 2) The storyline being a real mind@&ck. But the message was that, according to Chaos Theory, small actions can have a “Butterfly Effect” that influences and continues to influence things, good and bad. Check out this Taoist Fable for another example of what I mean (and really read this one. Sometimes my linked text has pretty inconsequential stuff, I’ll admit it, but this one is a quick read and makes you think). We can’t predict, control, or be aware of the consequences of our actions.
Something that I often do when initially regretting a decision, is say “Well, if I HAD (chosen the winning lotto numbers/invested in Lululemon/worn sunscreen/etc.), I would have subsequently…been hit by a bus.” Now, at first read, this might not make a ton of sense. But, basically what I’m trying to get at is that everything we do has a ripple effect–an influence that we can’t calculate or be fully aware of. Hence, the Butterfly flapping its wings and ultimately influencing a hurricane.
3. Life is a Research Project, and the Knowledge We Acquire is Through Experience and Awareness:
I’m always continually amazed by people’s expectations that they should “be perfect,” never err, and have fortune-telling abilities. “I should have ____” or “If only I had/n’t _____” are statements I constantly hear. Do these statements serve you?
Now, saying “I should have” does not necessarily have to be accompanied by regret. There are many times when I think, I should have been a better friend to that person, or I shouldn’t have sent that text message, or I should have kept my mouth shut. However, these “shoulds” teach me a better way of living my life moving forward–they don’t leave me imagining how my future would be so much better/different had I done whatever I’m “shoulding all over myself” regarding.
Practise your COAL mind (Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving/Compassionate), consider life a research project, remind yourself that the reason you feel remorse/regret/guilt is because you have morals (you’re not a Psychopath! Score!), and bring the awareness forward to serve you in the future.
4. Other People Learn From Our Mistakes, Too:
How do we learn what’s a good idea and what’s a bad idea? When I was fifteen, I learned that slamming the better part of a 26 of Captain Morgan’s in an A&W bathroom with my dear friend, Steffi, (who now has her own awesome blog) is a bad idea (No, I was not “old enough to come aboard”). Now, ending up in the hospital (and having the annual celebration during which this occurred shut-down forever, having it be in the paper the next morning, having someone in the grade above me bring it for current events, and being absolutely mortified and ashamed–just to name a couple ramifications) were excellent lessons to try to be mindful not to get alcohol poisoning again. And I wasn’t the only one who learned from this. So did the rest of the teenage population of Kamloops. At least if they–or their parents–read the paper.
Any time we hear of scandals, crimes, or minor antisocial or unfavourable behaviour, whether it be through the news or through friends or family, we are learning from others’ mistakes. We contribute to others’ learning by making some of those mistakes, ourselves; so, if others know about your regrets, consider one source of meaning being that you’re helping others learn how to live their lives in a more helpful way.
5. It’s in the Past, So You Have the Choice to Either Regret or Mindfully Forgive Yourself:
This point risks coming across as being dismissive (“It’s in the past. Just forget it and move on!”). That’s not what I mean–well, not exactly. What I mean is that whatever happened has happened. You can’t turn back time, (I learned that from Cher), so you’re left with two choices. 1) Beat yourself up for the past. Ruminate over it. Try to make sense of it. Replay it over and over again. Think “If only,” and “I should have.” Yeah, you can do all that. But what’s it going to do for you? Prob not much, other than cause a lot of anxiety and shame and distress. Or, you can take another route. You can 2) Choose to accept that the past has happened, and you’re not proud of whatever is causing you regret. As I’ll explain further in an upcoming post, acceptance does not necessarily mean wanting or liking or condoning or encouraging. It means choosing to acknowledge, with compassion, that what’s occurred has occurred, and finding a way to archive it into your life story/identity in a way that doesn’t create anxiety or distress.
So how to do that? Well, the previous points can help (e.g. finding meaning in the experience and practising compassion towards yourself). A formula I use?“I’m currently feeling (emotion) when I think about (event/decision/behaviour). At the time, doing that made sense to me because ______, but now that I have more information, it could have been more helpful to ______. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted this at the time, so this will be helpful in the future for me and the people with whom I feel safe sharing it if I encounter a similar situation.”
One of my most favourite quotes was said by (here’s a shocker) Viktor Frankl: “Even the most negative aspects of human existence, such as guilt, suffering, and death, can be viewed positively, given the right attitude.”
Find meaning in your suffering, and you might no longer feel regret.
6. So Long as You’re Practising Mindfulness and Compassion, You Can Trust You Will Be Able to Accept Your Regrets.
A woman whom I hold in very high regard once reminded me, “Do not sleepwalk through life.” In other words, pay attention. There will be times you are on autopilot–it’s impossible to be mindfully aware during all waking hours. However, if you can make a point to be “awake”–to observe, to pay attention, to use your “Wise Mind”, you can trust that you will make “good” choices, that you will live your life fully and without regret, because how can you expect yourself to do any more than that? And, as I always like to emphasize, you are an imperfect human being like the rest of us. You (probably) do not have clairvoyant abilities.
To sum, how you view the past, how you view “mistakes” or “bad decisions,” really comes down to your perspective; and, the beautiful thing, is that you’re the one who has the power to change that. By following some of these tips, I hope you can find moments of forgiveness and peace with past mistakes, and trust that you’ll continue to go through life mindfully :).