Do you sometimes find yourself deeply regretting some action you took or some words you spoke?
I think we all have moments in which we mentally beat up on ourselves about something we regret having done. We can find ourselves stuck in thoughts of embarrassment, shame, and guilt.
There seems to be no good way to undo what we have done or said, so all we seem to be able to do is keep telling ourselves that what we did was stupid, shortsighted, impulsive, and unforgivable. Even when we recognize that no good seems to come from staying with these thoughts, we often find it very difficult to avoid this mental trap.
So how do we get beyond this stuck place of regret and self-judgment?
We may know that replacing self-condemnation with self forgiveness and self compassion is much of what we need, but many have never learned an effective way to make this transition. And trying to move in this direction is further made difficult by our evolved strong “negativity bias” which inclines us toward focusing on the negative rather than positive.
What can get us out of this dilemma?
Some wonderfully helpful answers are found in a little book called Nonviolent Communication – A Language Of Life by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.
Rosenberg points out how we all have universal human needs such as physical needs (food, air, water, rest, etc.), interdependence needs (acceptance, appreciation, closeness, community, consideration, contribution, emotional safety, empathy) and many other needs.
Everything we do, Rosenberg explains, is in pursuit of meeting our needs in the best way we can given the internal resources we have access to any given moment.
In other words, each of us is doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
If we can keep this perspective in mind, even our deepest regrets and self loathing can often be transformed into self-compassion by digging deep to answer for ourselves two questions.
1) “What need of mine was I desperately trying to meet when I did what I did?”
2) “What need of mine is feeling unmet as I now contemplate what I did?”
Rosenberg explains that first identifying our feelings is an important pathway to identifying our needs that are being experienced as met or unmet in a particular situation. He offers some helpful lists of common feelings and needs.
If over the Thanksgiving weekend you blurted out some angry words that you now deeply regret, you might want to ask yourself the first question above. You might discover that your unmet deep need for being appreciated (or some other natural universal human need) was what lay behind your outburst.
Using the second question, you might discover that your unmet need for self-respect or for positive contribution lies behind your strong feeling of regret for not having found a better way to acknowledge and share your deep need.
I hope this at least gives you hope that there is a practice that can move you beyond the pain of unresolved regret.
Until next time, stay safe.