Living with guilt and regret sucks. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s wonderful to be free of it.
We all take actions from time to time that we later regret. As humans, we are fallible.
Most of us grew up being shamed or criticised by the adults in our lives. Such shaming teaches us to become self-critical. We believe that “taking responsibility” means putting ourselves down—so much so that we even put ourselves down when apologising. All these self-judgements fuel our feelings of guilt and remorse.
When we chastise or blame ourselves, we affect other people too. How we treat and feel about ourselves comes across in our interactions with others.
Self-judgement keeps us locked into a vicious cycle of shame. However, we can break this cycle.
Here’s a 6-step process I sometimes use with my clients to help them clear away some of their guilt and regret.
1. Action – what did you do or not do that you now regret?
2. What self-judgements come to mind when you think about that action? I ask my client to name these out loud. These include all judgments, stories, or beliefs they hold about themselves or others.
3. I ask the client to notice the physical sensations that arise in the body as they recall these thoughts and to label this feeling. It may be anxiety, shame, fear, disgust or something else.
4. Next, I ask them to let go of that label, and just feel the feeling all by itself. I encourage them to breathe and to focus all their attention on those physical sensations. I ask them if the feeling stays the same, or if it changes over time.
5. Now I ask them, “What need did you have at that time that you were trying to meet?” In other words, “what were you really longing for?” Maybe it was for acceptance, safety, support, trust, love or inclusion. If my client seems to be intellectually ‘guessing’, I encourage them to be patient with the process until they experience a physical sensation that takes them to the heart of the matter; the thing they were yearning for.
6. Many of my clients are carrying regrets that have been with them for a long time. In this case, I encourage them to take time to mourn the fact that their need was not met; that they did not get what they ultimately longed for. Grieving our unmet needs is important for healing.
This is also a process you can do by yourself. Set aside 10-20 minutes and work through each step thoughtfully. Use a pen and paper to record your responses. However, you will find it most beneficial to share this experience with a trusted friend or therapist who can offer you acceptance and support.
Once we see our regrets in this way, we can transform our self-judgments into self-awareness and empathy. This is useful for healing ourselves, and letting go of guilt. It can also transform our communications and allow us to reconcile with others.
Using this process, we make amends from a place of self-love, not self-hate. Imagine you have argued with your partner. Having gone through this process, you may then find yourself able to express your needs with understanding and compassion. For example:
“After I snapped at you this morning, I felt really disappointed because I would really like to keep our discussions respectful. Our connection is really important to me. How are you feeling right now?”
The dialogue could flow from there, with you continuing to express your feelings and needs, while listening for the other person’s desires. This helps us stay away from labels and judgments about others and ourselves and brings much more peace and connection, internally and externally.
Only once we have expressed our needs and heard where the other person is coming from can we make choices that are honest and free from shame.