Regret, as I see it, is something like the experience of grief. The word itself comes from some combination of the prefix “re” (which, in this case, emphasizes intensity or force) and something like “lament” or “weep”.
Mourning the loss of “what I could’ve been had I not done what I now regret” might be something like what enacts the deep weeping that is regret.
Taken as “The Path” (toward profound release, relief, and belonging), regret can become the remedy for its own ailing nature.
Harnessing the motion of the emotion, practicing self-compassion, and utilizing self-care strategies are the tools for interacting with regret that allows it to unfold into its own source of transformation.
Motion of Emotion
The phrase, “focus on the motion, not the emotion” is something I am shamelessly borrowing from Shinzen Young. He describes a process of “spiritual alchemy” with which an individual can practice transforming negativity into loving-kindness:
Step 1: (Ignore the emotion, focus on the motion: experience negative emotion as vibrating waves of energy in the body)
Step 2: (Contact at least a drop of love and good-will: body sensations associated with positive emotions)
Step 3 (Use that little drop to “recolor” the vibrating waves of energy — then spread it all throughout and around your whole being)
Emotion is not something I would typically recommend ignoring… in this case, however, we can make the intention to turn away from the emotional charge and focus instead on the changing, shifting, moving, swirling, and dynamic emotional-type body sensations — but this is a temporary “ignoring”: we should respond to the content of emotion and allow ourselves to be guided by it with discernment (in other words, regret has a purpose… maybe it’s telling us to examine our behavior and change it!).
Just staying with the “motion of regret” in the body without getting caught up in its content can provide a great deal of relief, but there is more that can be done…
Drop of Goodness
Next, find, create, or evoke some sense of love, good-will, joy: something positive. Contact even just a “drop” of this goodness in the body (wherever you notice it). The body does a superb job of showing us the “signatures” of our emotional experiences — the fingerprints of this drop of goodness will be accessible somewhere in the bodily sensation (though it may be very subtle).
Spread It Around
When you are able to access this drop of goodness, introduce it into the motion of regret — this is a little like adding a drop of dye into a slowly-swirling fountain of clear water: allow the motion to be re-colored by the goodness you have found, created, or evoked in the bodily experience of emotion.
When this is done (after you have introduced goodness to regret), get out of the way and just watch it circulate. Let the motion of regret act as a carrier for that drop of goodness, and guide the movement to fill as much of your body as possible. Regret (and all negative emotions) have a lot of power: use it!
Self-compassion is right on time when regret arises, and most self-compassion practices traditionally have a similar format:
Imagine yourself (and/or others) both being relieved of all suffering and receiving the gift of peace and joy;
This imaginative-reflective exercise may also include repeating intentionally positive self talk such as:
“May I be free of suffering; May I live with peace and joy”.
Focus as intently as possible with vividness and clarity on the positive mental images/talk;
And, if any emotional body sensations may arise (they don’t have to for you to do the practice perfectly), turn your focus toward those feelings and saturate your awareness with the goodness of their nature.
Utilizing Self-Compassion practices can be another way to actually use regret to lessen its own pain — as though regret was held up in front of a mirror and self-love shone back…
Kristen Neff, an important self-compassion researcher (with LOTS of great resources on her website), considers Self-Compassion to include 3 key “ingredients”:
- Mindfulness (as opposed to over-identifying with emotion)
- Self-Kindness (as opposed to self-judgment)
- A felt sense of a shared human experience (as opposed to isolation)
Keeping these ingredients in mind while attempting to build a Self-Compassion practice can be helpful when “the going gets tough” (and it certainly may).
No matter the cause of regret, one has to pick up the pieces…
Consider regret to be an indicator that “something about the way I live must change”. I tend to think of self-care as consisting of a few key behaviors, and I remember them with the acronym, “IDEAS”:
“I” — Intention (focus on re-instating the “great” intention: to live a life of Good: the deep and instinctive hope to make better and to limit distress for ourselves and for those around us)
“D” — Diet/Nutrition (think about and “feel about” what you are putting into your body; aim to maintain a health gut biome)
“E” — Educate (yourself) and Exercise (engage with freshness in life by learning new and interesting things; get at least light exercise on most days).
“A” — Acts of kindness and Attentional training (do kind things for others without any expectation of getting anything back from it; meditate)
“S” — Social connection and Sleep (stay connected and accountable; give yourself the chance to have an appropriate amount of sleep)
[If you want another way to think about self-care, Dr Dan Siegel describes what he calls the “Healthy Mind Platter”.]
We should listen to our emotions: they can guide our life direction. But they should inform, not imprison. When we do feel imprisoned by negative emotions like regret, working skillfully can lead to the truly exciting realization that (while the emotion may not vanish instantly) the door to our cell has been wide open the whole time…
And all we have to do is step out.