December 11, 2013

6 Ways to Forgive Yourself & Let Go of Regret. ~ Megan Bruneau

One of the themes continuously brought to me in session is that of regret.

People often discuss mistakes or a decision surrounded by shame. 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 we transform in one sitting; however, these tips might allow you to see your past errors through a different lens:

1. We Thought 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 behavior (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 information we have at the time. We don’t know what’s going to happen following a decision. 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. We Might Not Be Aware of the Ripples.

Did you ever see the movie, The Butterfly Effect? Well, I did, and I forgot 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). We can’t predict, control, or be fully 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, 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 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 us?

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.

Practice 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 15, I learned that slamming the better part of a 26 of Captain Morgan’s in an A&W bathroom with my dear friend, is a bad idea. Ending up in the hospital, 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  feeling absolutely mortified and ashamed—just to name a couple ramificationswere 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 unfavorable behavior, 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 We Have the Choice to Either Regret or Mindfully Forgive Ourselves.

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, 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, we can do all that.

But what’s it going to do for us? Probably not much, other than cause a lot of anxiety and shame and distress.

Or, we can take another route.

We can 2) choose to accept that the past has happened, and we’re not proud of whatever is causing our 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 our 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 practicing compassion towards oneself).

A formula I use? “I’m currently feeling (emotion) when I think about (event/decision/behavior). 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.”

Even the most negative aspects of human existence, such as guilt, suffering, and death, can be viewed positively, given the right attitude.”

~ Viktor Frankl

Find meaning in your suffering, and you might no longer feel regret.

6. So Long as We’re Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion, We Can Trust We Will Be Able to Accept Our 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 we can make a point to be awake—to observe, to pay attention, to use our Wise Mind, we can trust that we will make good choices, that we will live our lives fully and without regret, because how can we expect to do any more than that?

And, as I always like to emphasize, we are an imperfect human being like the rest of us.

To sum, how we view the past, how we view mistakes or bad decisions really comes down to our perspective; and, the beautiful thing is that we’re the ones who have the power to change that.

By following some of these tips, I hope you can find more moments of forgiveness and peace with past mistakes, and trust that you’ll continue to go through life mindfully.

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Assistant Editor: Melissa Horton/Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Photos: elephant archives}

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