“The past only exists in our minds, so we must learn to let it go.”
Learning how we became our present selves
Someone – I think it was Eckhart Tolle – once said that when it comes to mental illness, anxiety is about worry for the future, while depression is concerned with regret for the past. While, I’m not entirely – or even nearly – convinced that this is true, there is little doubt that those with both depression and anxiety can get caught in the paralysis of reliving past events and regrets in their minds. Therefore, healing regret becomes important for reframing our past experiences and present identity and for improving mood and self-esteem.
Regret is a sticky emotion. It reminds us of who we once were. It’s the cold hand on the shoulder and the voice that whispers “remember…” in our ear when we’re getting a little too confident, when we’re actually feeling happy with who we are now.
My patients will often tell me that when they find themselves in a spiral of low mood, their minds are often playing and replaying past events over and over. They mull over painful memories until they are distorted, painting themselves as the villain the more they rewind and press play. Remembering in this way smears grey over their entire sense of self, and discolors the possibilities they see for themselves in the future and, worse, their abilities to take meaningful action in the present. It leads to deep feelings of self-hate and worthlessness. It causes feelings of hopelessness.
And so I tell them this: regret, while painful, is not always bad. It is a reflection, a comparison between two people – the person you are now and the person you used to be. When this comparison is particularly vast, when the you you used to be is particularly painful to remember, then know this; you have changed.
Regret comes from looking back with pain, wishing we’d taken a different course of action than the ones taken. However, when we flip this concept over and examine its shinier underbelly, we realize that in order to feel regretful about past events, we are acknowledging that we would not have performed the same action or made the same choice now. The flip side is not that we’re bad, it’s a reflection of our goodness. We have learned and evolved. We’re different.
Looking back is different from looking forward. Our lessons are what shape us. The fact that we regret is proof that we learn, we grow and we change into better, preferred versions of ourselves. If we sit in the experience of regret, we can feel proud that, if faced with the same situation today, we’d be better. Regret doesn’t mean that we are bad people; it’s proof that we’re good people. In order to regret the past, we’ve had to have changed.
To transform mulling over painful life choices and past actions into a healing, learning experience, I recommend a writing exercise – inspired by Narrative Therapy. In every story of regret and so- called badness, there is also a story of values, skills, preferred identity and goodness. The next time you find yourself cycling through feelings of regret, grab a pen and paper and answer the following questions:
- What happened? What events transpired? What did you do? What did other people in the story do? What events led up to the action you and others took? What was the context surrounding you at the time? What influenced your decision to act as you did?
- Looking back, what would you have done differently? What parts are particularly painful to remember? What actions or events do you regret?
- What might these regrets say about you now? What might it say about you to know that you would have acted differently if you were faced with the same situation now? What values do you embody that enable you to recognize that what you did in the past was regretful for you?
- Looking at these values, how have you shown you have this value in the past in other situations? Do you have a particular story you remember?
- How has that value or skill made an impact on the lives of others? In the story that you remembered, what might the actions you took in #4 have meant to the people around you?
- How do you embody this value in the present? Where does it show up in the actions you take today? How might you embody this value in the future? What actions might you take while remembering this value? What does remembering this value and the story from #4 make possible for the future?
Going through this writing exercise can help us look back with more compassion for the person we were, who was growing into the person we are now. It might create possible ways that we can rectify the way people and things were impacted in the past – if that means an apology, paying forward a good act, taking different steps in a similar present situation or even moving on and letting go of our tendency to hold onto the memory.
This article originally appeared on TaliaND.com and is republished here with permission.