Regret is a funny thing, because even though we know that no matter how much we wish we’d done things differently, it doesn’t change what happened in the past. It’s a strange habit, because it doesn’t feel good, it causes us to suffer, and yet we can’t seem to help replaying what happened time and time again.
We go back and remember our mistakes and painful moments, whether we blurted out something insensitive, or felt embarrassed or had a moment of reactivity or rage. We often beat ourselves up for our mistakes and feel shame, negativity and regret.
But in doing this, we don’t learn much and instead generate a lot of inner turmoil. So, why is the human mind so prone to this habit of rumination on past mistakes?
Keep reading to find out more about transforming your relationship with regret, or press ‘play’ to listen to the podcast episode below.
The reason our mind tends to ruminate on the past so much comes down to how we have evolved. For most of human history (around 200,000 years), humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Life for our caveman ancestors was incredibly difficult and dangerous, and to survive it was important to replay dangerous encounters. If you were attacked by a sabre tooth tiger and managed to survived the encounter, the mind would then replay the event again and again in order to learn from it and have an even better chance of survival next time.
These days, the mind still tends to do the same thing with any negative experiences such as when you make a mistake, do something embarrassing, or do something you later regret. It replays these situations again and again. But it tends to do it way past the point that is actually helpful or useful.
So, how can we work with regret in a more healthy and helpful way?
We can do it through these three steps:
Step 1 – Recognize the pattern
The first key is to simply recognize when we are stuck in this unhelpful pattern. Catch yourself when you’re getting pulled into regret and acknowledge it, saying to yourself mentally “Rumination is here.”
This practice of naming what is happening can immediately bring relief and it helps you take a step back from the painful memory, so you can choose to approach it in a whole new way.
Step 2 – Focus on the lesson
The second thing is to switch from rumination to a focus on learning. So now, looking back at what happened, we become curious about what we would like to learn from this experience and who we would like to be going forward. So you can ask yourself questions like, what can I learn from this? Are there any actions I might like to take to correct things or make amends? What commitments would I like to make about my behaviour going forward?
If we’ve caused pain, embarrassment or harm to another, we can practise these methods in the spirit of honoring them and committing to being a better version of ourselves. Instead of punishing ourselves and not changing, we’re learning and growing, which is to everyone’s benefit.
A wise teacher once said to me, “Regret is OK, but just a spoonful.” What he meant was, if you notice the mind going into regret mode, that’s ok. It can be a great opportunity to recognize and fully and honestly acknowledge that what we did may not have been helpful or kind for ourselves and for others. We can then learn from it, making an intention to do better in the future.
This spoonful of regret need not take long. Maybe a minute or so. Just enough time to acknowledge what happened, learn from it and grow from it. And all of this can be done with an attitude of honouring the people involved – as an act of love for them and ourselves.
Step 3 – Let the mind know it’s ok to let go
And the third step here is to let the mind know that you have learned what you needed to learn, and it’s ok to let it go now. Think of the mind like your inner guard dog. It’s always trying to protect and serve you. It might gravitate toward replaying that mistake or misfortune, but ultimately its intentions are benevolent. It just wants you to have the best chance of survival.
Because of this default though, we sometimes need to communicate to the mind that we have learned what we needed to learn and it’s time to move on. You could say something like, “Thank you mind, I’ve learned from this now,” in a warm and friendly tone.
The mind doesn’t know any better than to play out its ancient conditioning, so we’re retraining it here to adapt in a more healthy and helpful way. And letting it know that it is safe to let go and relax. And then let go of the focus on what is happening in your head and guide your attention back into what is happening in the present moment.
So let’s recap these three steps. First of all, catch yourself when you’re stuck in a state of regret and mentally note,“rumination is here.” Second, just take a spoonful of regret. Fully acknowledge what happened and take any lessons that can be learned.
Lastly, thank the mind for replaying the event, but let it know it can relax now. “Thanks mind, I’ve learned from this.” And then bring your focus back to what you’re doing in the present moment.
This practice could take as little as a minute or so, or longer if you feel it’s necessary. You just need enough time to acknowledge what happened and see how you can learn from it and grow before letting it go. We can do this with an attitude of honouring the other people involved as an act of love for them and ourselves. In this way, our regrets, rather than being debilitating or unhelpful, can become great sources of wisdom, motivation, strength and mental clarity.
So here’s my invitation: whenever regret arises, try not to spend too much time wishing you could change things that you can’t. Instead, give yourself a moment to have just a spoonful of regret to learn, grow and make an intention to behave in ways that leave yourself and others feeling healthy, happy and empowered.
All the best with the practice, and as always thank you for your presence here in this community.
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