On Regret

I’ve been thinking about regret lately, and how much regret I have and how it stems from deep-set shame over all kinds of things. I’ve managed to rack up regrets over every aspect of my life – how I walk, how I talk, how I eat, smile, laugh; everything I do is up for scrutiny and a certain sense of shame. At this point in my life, I’m not sure WHY I’m hanging on to so much shame and regret, but I doggedly cling to it like a bizarre life raft thinking that it will somehow keep me afloat.

Shame and regret can be useful tools. Humans and other animals learn from doing things wrong – if you never make mistakes, learning how to cope with challenges, and learning new skills will be difficult. (I have a pair of socks that say, “Screwing Up Is Part Of The Protocol” to remind me that making mistakes is part of the normal course of business of being human.) Being ashamed of or regretting something can be a useful reminder that what we’ve done is wrong, but shame and regret can also go too far and consume us.

On any given day, I probably think about a dozen or more things that I regret and I wish I had done differently or that had never happened. If I’m having a bad anxiety day, those thoughts might consume my thinking for most of the day, and my productivity and well-being. In the past (before I decided to seek help from a psychiatrist), I had severe panic attacks from thinking about something that happened 10 or 20 years ago and being consumed by the shame of my actions. It was a sense of regret that spiraled down into debilitating feelings of unworthiness, guilt, inferiority. Why? I took it for granted in the past, assumed I was supposed to feel that way, that the sense of shame and regret I felt was good and natural and that I SHOULD feel that way. But what does that actually do for me?

When I get consumed by those feelings, I don’t feel like I’m actually learning anything new, that I’m growing as a person. I realized in the last year or so that what I’m doing is beating myself down, that these self-conscious feelings are destructive. I don’t think I realized how negatively these exercises in regret impacted my life until recently, when I connected my internal “fantasy” life (mainly the fantasy of being able to navigate personal and professional situations without saying or doing the wrong thing, without being goofy or weird) with the feelings of shame and regret. Normally, an episode of being consumed by regret would be followed by episodes of escapism – here’s how this would have turned out if I was better at social situations, or if I wasn’t as awkward, or if I was more self-assured.

I still can’t answer why I regret so much, and I know logically it serves no purpose other than to further fuel my anxiety and give it something to latch onto. I started (re-started, really) meditating with the Headspace app and I noticed that even during meditation my mind naturally gravitates to something I did wrong and starts to focus on that. The meditation does help me push those thoughts away (the method is called “noting,” whereby you acknowledge the thought or feeling and move on), but I can’t answer why I should keep clinging to this consumption, other than that it’s a habit and I’ve lived so long like this that I don’t know how to live any other way.

I’m not one for resolutions, but I started thinking at the end of the year that I wanted to change this about myself. I want to stop pre-shaming myself and worrying about what I might do wrong or how I might fuck things up. I want to stop shaming myself during and after an event and picking apart everything I do. But mostly, I want to let go of all the regrets I have in my life. The burden of shame is great, and it can lead to a host of other negative behaviors (rage, anger, fear), and that it can be contagious in those around you. So this year, instead of having a resolution that I’ll forget about in a few weeks, I’m committing to letting go of this destructive shame and regret, to breaking a habit that’s become self-destructive.

Tiny Buddha has an article that provides a good starting point. But as with any project, breaking a bad habit requires a support system, not just will and determination, so the second part of this exercise is going to be remembering that I have a support system and actually using it. No one walks through life entirely alone.

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  – John Donne, Meditation XVII

The alternative is continuing a destructive cycle, which will undermine all the other aspects of my life. I don’t want my life to be consumed by something so worthless as regret over things I can no longer control or change, when I could be working on literally anything else of value in my life.