You're walking down the street and suddenly a scene flashes into your mind. It's that time you...(fill in the blank here with whatever horrible behavior you've been guilty of and heinous outcomes that resulted).
Your gut clenches, you breathe shallowly and your heart aches for that incredible error, for the people you hurt, for your shame and embarrassment, for your own younger self, perhaps for the second or third or fourth time you made that same mistake.
Regret is a universal human emotion.
Most everyone has regrets. And if someone doesn't, I think he's whitewashing his past.
Occasionally I run into someone who says, "I don't regret a thing in my life! It's all been a learning experience."
Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly agree with the second statement. It's the first I take issue with.
We all do stupid stuff sometimes, and it's healthy and normal to have regrets.
What we do with those regrets, however, is essential for our progress as people to live lives (and create businesses) with purpose and meaning.
So, how do we process our regrets so that they don't handicap us forever, turn into chronic fear, or otherwise weasel their way into our hearts and minds?
1. Accept your regrets.
"Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh." Henry David Thoreau
I pulled that quote from Thoreau because I think it's important to allow ourselves to experience anew the emotions that result from acknowledging our own failings. Blithely stating that you have "zero regrets" probably means that you've steeled your ego against any idea that you are not actually perfect. It means you haven't taken a moment to engage with your shadow side.
Whether your regret is related to relationships or to business, it can be incredibly painful to acknowledge when and where you screwed up. Feel that pain. Let it wash over you. Notice where it sits in your body. If you don't experience it, you'll play Whack-a-Mole with it when it pops up somewhere else.
I'll never forget the day I realized that all my crash and burn consulting engagements were, gasp, due to my own ego and improper handling of each and every situation. Sure I might have been working with crazies. Sure they might have been underpaying me or had impossible expectations. (Those were the stories I told aloud to make myself feel better when the projects ended, often not on a good note.)
But I was the common denominator. And when I finally owned my role, I was able to start changing. But it was REALLY painful to accept that realization about myself and my character. Ouch.
2. Parse out the pattern. If you've got a handful of regrets in your life, chart them! Take out a sheet of blank paper and put each regret down the left side. Across the top (for each regret), write down the players (who was involved). Write down when and where it took place. Write down what happened. (Bullet points can be helpful here.) Write down how you felt at the time and your reasons for feeling that way. Then make note of what you told yourself afterwards. Who did you blame? How did you justify your behavior in the moment?
Now comes the good part: looking back, what did you miss that you can see now? What are the common themes? What was your role in each and every situation? What patterns do you see emerging from your chart?
3. Engage with your shadow.
“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.” ― Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Damn I love Richard Rohr. He is forever challenging my grandstanding and my ego, my obsession with performance and my denial of my true nature.
As you start to engage in this emotional and mental exercise, you'll start to see who you like to think you are v. who you actually are. Sometimes the chasm is terrifying. Even if it's not massive, it's still there.
Fortunately, bridging that chasm doesn't have to remain frightening!
Your darkness can be beautiful and invigorating (to quote Rob Brezny). After all, it's in the blackest soil that new seedlings can spring up miraculously. It's from the darkness that we start to claw our ways toward light. Confronting your shadow is (I think) one of the best gifts you can give to yourself, to your clients, to your loved ones.
"Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people." Carl Jung
4. Stay present. Far from being a trite exhortation to follow your breath (which does have its own merit because it brings us back to our physical present), what I mean by "stay present" is exactly that.
Regrets (and their accompanying pain) live in the past. If you are fully present, you leave little room for aching regrets to stymie your dreams and your current choices, behavior and treatment of yourself and others.
Presence opens you up to new paths and new decisions. Just last night I spoke with my soon to be sister-in-law, a therapist, about how sometimes our oldest friends continue to treat us as the people we were 20 years ago (or more!). How sad that is to me. She said, "Well that means that the one person really hasn't moved forward or changed in 20 years."
Indeed. When we bring presence into our present, we can respond from current stimuli instead of from past conditioning.
I think one of the best teachers of this concept (and she's transmitting her teaching at a cellular level) is Elena Brower. She uses the tool that is yoga to help her students understand viscerally that each moment, each breath is an opportunity for a new neural connection, for greater space, more love.
Regrets, I've had a few, but breathing through the pain and coming out the other side means that I don't have to live my life burdened by their legacy. Instead I dance with the darkness, learn from it and transmute it into to fertilizer to grow my capacity for grace and love.
I'm sure I'll have more regrets in my life. And perhaps at some point, like Richard Rohr, I'll start to ask for them.