Sometimes I review my life and I am pleased. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished or I’m satisfied with something I’ve said. But other moments elicit pain. I regret that I was insensitive to a family member’s feelings. I’m embarrassed that I was self-centered. I’m terribly sorry for the way I behaved.
Fortunately, my transgressions are relatively minor. I have no criminal record, and I’ve never intentionally caused anyone bodily harm. Still, I must live with the unpleasant memories of my less than stellar actions.
I know I’m not alone in my misgivings. Each of us is human and makes mistakes on a regular basis. We have collections of goofs and missteps that we keep hidden in our emotional attics.
Most of us successfully balance our successes with our faults. Yes, we remember our errors. Yet they don’t interfere with our careers and relationships.
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Others are literally paralyzed by what they perceive to be their unforgiveable sins. Their minds continually replay internal video clips of their crimes, with every view reinforcing the wretchedness they already feel.
Our wrongdoings may have had serious consequences. A man who divorced his wife and moved away from his children might harbor ongoing sadness that he wasn’t in their lives.
But we may also experience guilt for seemingly minor offenses or for events that were beyond our control. One client of mine was wracked with angst because she couldn’t stop her parents’ incessant arguing and eventual divorce.
Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same. We regret something that we did or said and then continue to torment ourselves for that behavior. We tell ourselves we’re awful, that we’re ugly or that we’re worthless. We grip our muscles, clench our fists and grind our teeth. We attempt to block the memories with drugs and alcohol. We grovel in the self-inflicted misery that we sense we deserve.
Of course, none of this self-abnegation serves any purpose. Keeping ourselves in the psychological sewer only ruins what we have today. It does nothing to rectify our crimes. Nor does our internal purgatory erase the pain we’ve inflicted on others. That’s already in the past tense. We can’t rewrite the script.
What we can do is understand that we’re human and that as humans, we sometimes mess up. No matter what we may have done, we can forgive ourselves and start the process of living today. The path may not be easy. It requires persistence and patience to follow. But your unwavering commitment will unlock your mental ball and chain and reward you with the happiness you deserve.
Tips for curbing regrets
Are you overcome with remorse? Start with these suggestions to release it and reclaim your life:
Identify the behavior you regret. Search through your emotional annals and decide what’s causing you the most pain. Be as specific as possible. Avoid generalities such as “I’m sorry I was born.”
Allowing yourself to confront the wound lets you start the process of healing.
Take a thorough survey. Explore the details of what you did. Be objective and rational in your assessment. Ask, “Who caused this problem?” Decide, “Would I blame someone else who behaved the way I did?” Your honest and insightful inquiry may remove some of the angst you’ve associated with the event.
Understand your imperfect nature. If you determined that you’re to blame, so be it. You made a mistake. Everyone does. Grant yourself ample permission to be human. You can’t be any better than you are.
Quiet your mind. Take time to sit quietly every day and allow your brain to be still. Your regret consists of a series of thoughts and with practice, those thoughts can be calmed and controlled.
Apologize to those you have offended. Need to make amends with those you’ve harmed? Start by saying you’re sorry. Your sincere mea culpa places the blame square-ly on your shoulders, where it belongs, and lets you accept the consequences of your action. Don’t worry if your apologies are rebuffed by those you offended. You’re starting the healing process. They’ll have to proceed at their own pace.
Make changes in your behavior. Do what you can to clean up your act. Quit smoking. Take an anger management course. Be more attentive to family members’ needs. Stop criticizing your kids. Be the best person you can be today, and move beyond the shackles of your past.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com