I wish I didn’t do that, Why did I do that?, What was I thinking?? Regret is looking back over your life and wishing you had done something , said something or changed something about whatever it is that you did, and you know you can’t go back and re-do it. This silent movie plays over and over tormenting you like a bully in your head teasing a victim. As much as you replay it and rewrite it and try to change the outcome of your horror flick, the ending is always the same – you feel embarrassed, sorry, sad and shameful.
If this sounds familiar you are not alone. Most people tend to live in two states of mind and feeling – regretting the past and worrying about the future. The whole living in the NOW Deepak Chopra kinda thing eludes most people even if they try really hard. So there are all of these people walking around regretting something. I know I have done it now millions of times after living over five decades and it can be really tormenting.
As much as you think about it and replay it, it’s not going to just simply go away. What I mean is that it’s unlikely that you are going to just forget it. It will stay with you and your private horror movie will continue to play and you will get thrown into your shame spiral every time if you keep reinforcing the idea that you did something wrong and it is unforgivable. But there is a way out of this spiral.
Certainly there is a scale and a morality to all of this regret, but there’s a difference to swiping candy at the drug store when you were 11 years old, to say committing a murder. Replaying a regret to some degree is becoming your own judge, jury and executioner. By regretting, you have condemned yourself to a revolving carousel of regretful memories and you are reminded of that time when you said or did something you wish you hadn’t and then the icy hot wave of shame coats you.
So why do we do this, what purpose does regret have within our psychological system? We each have our moral and ethical compass of how we fit in with the rest of our peers and the rest of the world. We base how we feel about ourselves and how others will feel about us to our societal norms, standards and customs. Most of us learn to feel badly if we offend someone, we learn to say I’m sorry and we learn to do better next time. We also learn to replay regret over and over in our heads and feel ashamed. But only a few of us learn the skills of self-reflection and self-forgiveness.
Without the balance of self-reflection we defend our actions to ourselves and even to others if provoked. For those who do not have these skills of introspection, they become very defensive people who never say they are sorry and a lot of times they are the emotional manipulators in our lives. But I’m not going to spend too much time on them today because as you can read my other article on emotional manipulators to understand these folks better. What you need to know is people who are manipulative may feel regret, but they quickly gloss over it because their wounded sense of self cannot process the weight (or the shame) of the idea that they are wrong. They appear to have no regret, but they are so well defended and often do not have much humility that its hard to look at this.
Even people who have a good sense of self still feel regret. They are the ones who say I wish I did this, or why didn’t I do that, I should have done this. A lot of time the should statements are about I should have done this or that because my peers or society will think I’m bad because I didn’t. Regret serves a purpose, but to a point. Left unchecked regret becomes a way of thinking and feeling for many people. They play this regretful soundtrack in their heads daily and it is muzak to their psyche.
But you don’t have to live that way.
Think of something you are regretful about. For most people the regret is not too far away to remember. Now use your analytical skills to reason with yourself as you probably have done lots of times. Ask yourself is there anything else I can learn from replaying this over in my mind? Probably not as you have already spent loads of time trying to figure out how you could have done something differently. Have you made amends if you need to do so? Are there any actions that you could take to heal this situation?
Now with the analytical part out of the way, check in with your emotions around this topic. Notice where in your body the emotions are stored? Does your stomach feel queasy or upset or tight when you replay the horror movie of regret? Do you have a pain in your neck (literally)? Do you notice your shoulders tightening or any other areas of tension?
Now that you have located a physical sensation, what is the feeling associated with this? Dread, sadness, shame, hurt? Dig deeper than just saying you regret something – ask yourself what are the deeper feelings that I carry. If you are not able to identify more feelings just put that aside for now and focus on the physical feeling.
The next part asks that you expand your awareness to use some of the breathing exercises I spoke of in the Worry Loop article. Put your hand on your belly and take a deep breath. As you breathe in say to yourself: “I’m a good person” and on the exhale “I forgive myself”. Do this over and over till you notice a shift inside of yourself. At first you may notice that this feels stilted and that you are just saying the words and you may not believe yourself. That’s ok, that just means you are getting used to being kind to yourself. Keep saying these phrases to yourself as you gently breathe in and out.
As you continue with this mantra, you may feel a shift inside of yourself where you are not as tight or tense. As you continue to breathe and say these words you are in the process of letting go of the shame and pain and you are welcoming healing and forgiveness of self. If you find that you have done this for a while and it is still not working, you may want to look at the anger or the harder feelings you may have towards yourself. Some people I find punish themselves severely for an error they made or a slight to someone else. Punishing yourself is not going to make the regret go away , it will only increase the shame you feel. See if you can work on those stronger feelings and then come back to the exercise.
There is no right or wrong way to do the process I’m talking about. I’m just giving you a template and a concept. Pick up what you are connecting to with this process and make it your own. The idea is that you can heal this pattern of mental abuse towards yourself and let go of this repetitive regret cycle.
Guilt is I made a mistake; Shame is I am a mistake. You can recover from both. Guilt and shame are natural states of feeling, but they don’t need to be natural states of Being. People who have chronic regret often feel ashamed and they begin to link this feeling to a concept of who they are. How often have you heard someone say “I’m a bad person”?
The message is about self-forgiveness
The mind is open to new things, but at the same time the mind likes its comfort zones. So your mind is going to want to return to this pattern of regret cycles. The mind is not going to automatically go to self-forgiveness unless you give your mind that instruction. The mind forms patterns and grooves it likes to get into and deepens these ruts of thought as it were. So the go-to for your mind may be – well let’s pull up all those things I regret, because they reinforce how bad I then feel about myself and this reinforces that I’m a bad person. Yes, this is the cycle. It doesn’t feel very good does it?!
What I say is: I forgive myself… Every day I set out to do the best I can for myself and others. Every day I wake up and I do not intentionally say how can I screw up my life today. Every day, I try my best, but I’m not perfect. I’m perfectly imperfect. I forgive myself.
The actress Kitty Carlisle said that one of her secrets to a happy life was that she forgave herself. Every morning she looked in her mirror and said, “Kitty, I forgive you,” before she started her day.”
What a great reminder that no matter what happened yesterday (cheating on your diet, or being unkind to someone), that today is a new day. Don’t over analyze things. Don’t stress out.
“Forgiveness does not change the past,
but it does enlarge the future.”
Don’t trap yourself in the past. There’s no way to go back and un-do what’s already transpired – whether it’s an argument, a decision or something that in the light of a new day we would not have chosen. What we have is today, we are living in today, not yesterday, and it’s not tomorrow yet. This moment. Nothing more. So why cloud all of our possibilities with regret or anger
“Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle
of resentment and retaliation”
Now take a deep breath and r e l a x.
Robert Jackman, LCPC
The Self Forgiveness Handbook – Rutledge
Get out of your Mind and into your Life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy – Hayes