One of the reasons people come to therapy is to deal with the pain associated with regrets. They feel guilty, ashamed, or suffering a more diffuse dis-ease. Sometimes they know exactly what they did and why it hurts, but often people are suffering and don’t know why. It’s not until they explore the feelings that they realize the pain is associated with letting themselves down, breaking a rule, falling short of a standard, saying or doing something they regret.
Few things preoccupy the mind more than regrets. We regret doing or saying something. We feel regret when we do not approve of something we did (past tense); we violated a principle or value; we fell short of a goal; we caused an effect we did not intend. Acknowledging the undesired effect pains us. When something unwanted occurs it hurts and we have to deal with it; acknowledge the cause, come to terms with the effects and accept it and move on. The fact that it’s in the past makes it something we can’t do anything about. The mind wants to solve the problem but can’t go back and change the behavior.
When the mind is faced with something it cannot change, such as something in the past, it tends to ruminate on it, circling it like a moth around a flame. It’s trying to do its job of solving the problem, but it can’t seem to find a way. It keeps looking for an opening, an angle; it tries to undo it, to deny it. But the pain remains. It cannot accept the thing is done, irrevocable, and the consequences are real. We keep “thinking about it” because the mind is trying to resolve it.
Accepting unwanted outcomes is difficult. It is so difficult that the mind usually focuses on blame, which allows it to divert its energies to anger. The mind often prefers anger to regret, the difficult state of having to face something it doesn’t like. It can preoccupy itself with angry thoughts for a long time, but of course this doesn’t solve the real problem. This is why grudges last; because the real problem remains unresolved. A more efficient use of energy is to come to terms with the unwanted reality.
I have been studying self-forgiveness for 20 years. In 1994, at The UW-Madison, where I was studying moral development, I was part of a forgiveness research group headed by Bob Enright, widely considered the authority on forgiveness in the scientific community and popular culture. The group was conducting empirical studies that showed the healing efficacy of a particular forgiveness process. My contribution to the group was to explore whether what we knew worked for interpersonal forgiveness would work with self-forgiveness. That research, and much that has been done since, bears out the relevance and efficacy of a self-forgiveness process, as do my clinical observations and experience helping people forgive.
How to forgive yourself:
Something in the recent or distant past nags at you with pangs of regret, guilt or shame. You may have learned to bury these feelings over time yet you know in the back of your mind it still affects you. Are you ready to let go of that pain?
The basic process of self-forgiveness entails acknowledging the truth of what happened around the regret, including the subsequent consequences to those involved, and how you feel about it; seeking to understand how it could happen considering the context in which it occurred; bringing compassion to this deeper understanding; and experiencing the change of heart and release.
To start you need to get it out. If you have a therapist you can talk to him or her about it. If you don’t and want to work on this by yourself it’s best to write about it. Simply thinking about it is ineffective and permits the mind too many opportunities to avoid uncomfortable realities. Writing things down, and better yet, saying them out loud, to someone else, have a way of making them more real and bringing you in touch with the associated feelings (this is why most people tend to avoid doing so).
If you choose to write about it, carve out an hour in a private, uninterrupted space and write about the regret. It’s important that you trust the medium you use to be private. Something you can burn or delete or otherwise keep safe. Confidentiality is important so you will not edit the flow of associations, or consciously or unconsciously craft an edited story out of concern that others will read it and learn your secrets. The important thing is you feel free to be completely honest with yourself.
The goal of the first step is to understand your offense. At first focus on subjectivity; take yourself back to the event and free associate about the facts of it; everything you remember and all the associations you have; what happened, how it felt, whom it involved and their reactions; everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about making a coherent story; just get it out. Don’t be overly concerned with timelines or how the story strings together. Discrepancies and alternative notions of what happened, and why, are to be expected. You can always go back and look at them and consider how all your thoughts are relevant to the event. Allow your mind to wander into the longer term effects stemming from the event, even effects you fear or imagine and cannot verify, how you may have changed because of it, how you may have subsequently compensated or vowed to be different from then on. The point is to try to keep the flow of associations open so you have more to work with.
This process is painful, if you truly consider the realities and are in touch with the associated feelings. If it’s not painful, you may be intellectualizing; i.e., thinking without feeling. This is a psychological defense that the mind uses to protect itself. If you are unable to get into the feelings you may need to work through your regret with the help of a therapist.
The goal of the second step is to find your offense understandable. Bring more objectivity to bear on the unfolding story. Assume a new perspective, as though you are an observer of someone else’s story. Try to be open minded, tolerant, and accepting. Consider if what you did is understandable, reasonable, given the circumstances. Consider the context, the possible personality, developmental, and psychodynamic issues that might have influenced it. Free yourself from conventional judgment. You can judge something as wrong and still understand how it happened. For example, you might think, “spitting on another person is wrong, but under those circumstances I can see why she did it; understandable because she was provoked and is human and was incredibly angry and lost control.” The point is to understand the offense in the context in which it occurred, including acknowledging that people aren’t perfect; we do things we regret. It’s normal.
The effort to understand is important because it is the basis for empathy and compassion: a softening and change of heart that allows you to feel love toward the “sinner”- in this case, yourself. You are the one feeling compassion. You are the one feeling your own compassion. In those terms can you love this shameful thing about yourself? Can you place the offense in the context of where and who you were at the time, and in the context of a much broader sense of who you are, someone capable of goodness despite the offense; someone who usually lives in accord with your standards?
In the process of thinking deeply about the regret expect to experience intense emotions; instead of trying to avoid and regulate them, welcome them as real and important to the process of letting go of the pain. The more authentic these emotional reactions are and the less they stay in your head, the more likely this process is to set you free.
Don’t, however, expect a big “a-ha” moment or huge sigh of relief. It’s not exactly like someone pulling a thorn out of your toe or giving you the Heimlich.
Pay attention to how you feel afterwards, and after you sleep on it, and the following days. You will feel calmer and at peace, less anxious, more dignified, self-respecting, and happier. You may recognize that you feel more deserving, have more “rights”, and stick up for yourself more than you had before.
What it’s not:
Forgiveness is not the same as letting yourself off the hook; it is not a dismissal of the pain or the offense. It is also not about getting someone else, including God to let you off the hook. It may help if others excuse or forgive you or you ask for God’s grace, or, these things can interfere with your process.
It is important to differentiate the forgiveness process from related concepts like justification, rationalization, excusing, pardoning, and denial. The difference is that forgiveness involves a sincere intention to own the realities and feelings as your own, of your own doing, and that empathic understanding is not meant to undo the feelings or realities, but rather to accept them, and accept them with a warm, open heart. (You will know the difference in how effective the process eventually is in releasing you from your pain.)
Letting go of regrets should not mean committing to a life of pious righteous abstinence from anything other the conventional upright life. Regrets end up enriching our lives by telling us about ourselves, expanding the range of our experience, showing us humility and grace, clarifying our values, helping us understand others, and a variety of other positive affects.