As I frequently write about on my site, there are so many ways the mind tries to protect us from the vulnerability, discomfort, and pain of being present, but the one that presents most often in my audience is the defense mechanism of intrusive thoughts. If you’re not familiar with how to understand and work with intrusive thoughts, please read through the Intrusive Thoughts Collection.
Typically, I talk about intrusive thoughts like, “What if I’m with the wrong person?” or “What if I have a life-threatening illness?” But recently another intrusive mindset has circled the realm of my counseling work, which alerts me to the need to address it here: the mindset of regret. Regret is another escape hatch from the pain of the present moment. The mind thinks, “If I had only made that decision, or not that one, or chosen that person and not this one, I wouldn’t be feeling the pain or the frustration or the loneliness or the uncertainty that I feel now.” The mind forgets three things in those compelling moments when it entices us to climb up the vine of this intrusive mindset:
1. We make the best decisions we can given the information we had at the time.
To the perfectionist, which reins supreme in the inner court of psyche for many of the people who find their way to my work, there is one perfect path and if only we could divine that path or choice we would avoid unhappiness. But the loving and wise inner parent, who can be grown through doing inner healing work and is the particular focus of my Trust Yourself course, knows that there isn’t one right choice and that we can only make the best decision we can make given the information we had at the time.
2. We don’t know the outcome of those other paths and choices.
The fear-based mind assumes that if we had chosen differently we would be feeling better now but it forgets the possibility that had we chosen differently things may have turned out worse than they are right now. Again, this is simply another way that the ego tries to wiggle itself out of the discomfort of the present moment.
3. Regret presupposes that we are in control of our lives completely and it undermines the awareness of a deeper holding.
As Jack Kornfield shares on his Instagram feed:
“Like a traveler on a train, we can put our bags down. We can relax our grip, and trust in the unfolding of life. Do not worry. There is a web of life into which we are born, from which we can never fall.”
When I read those words, I feel a wave of relief come over me, and it’s an immediate antidote to any tricky stories my mind weaves about thinking that I’m in control. When I can trust in the unfolding of life, I trust in the choices I’ve made and the paths I’ve taken. It’s all as it’s meant to be.
So you see there is this sneaky element of control when we perseverate on regret that tells us that we can or should have changed in the past in some way in order to avoid present. Regret, almost by definition, causes us to lose our trust in life: the sense that we are being guided by a deeper principle that we know but cannot see.
There have been a couple of events in my life that I have spent time regretting before I was able to break through the strongholds and feel more freedom. One was my choice to travel to Brazil my junior year of college, which resulted in months of trauma and years of posttraumatic stress. Understandably, my small protective brain circled around the cliff of regret for years, as I had always intended to travel to Spain.
But one day I had the thought, “What if I had traveled to Spain and something much worse had happened. What if I had been sexually assaulted or kidnapped or killed?” We simply have no way of knowing the outcome that our choices will yield. But the deeper freedom around that regret comes when I remember, as you are well-aware if you follow my blog, that it was that experience in Brazil, as heart-wrenching and grueling and traumatic as it was, that catapulted me into the world of anxiety and panic and the work that I have been doing for the past 20 years. Had I not gone to Brazil, it’s quite likely that I would not be sitting here with you today. Although maybe I would. This is, again, on some level my ego wanting to make sense of and make peace with the pain of life. The real freedom arrives when I remember to sit in the groundlessness of being human.
In order to sit with the discomfort of being human and learn to attend skillfully to the intrusive mindset of regret, we must develop two foundational skills:
1. Learn how to grow a solid inner parent, which is the wise and loving part of ourselves that can attend to our thoughts and feelings with discernment and compassion, and
2. Learn about what it means to fill our Well of Self, the central channel which, when full, is a compass and anchor-point by which we can navigate our lives.
I teach both of these skills in Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt, and my twelfth round will begin on April 13, 2019. I look forward to meeting you there.
If you would like to read some of my most popular posts on self-trust, including The Imposter Syndrome, The Fear of Making a Mistake, Leaf in the Wind Syndrome, and many more, please see the Self-Trust Collection, which can be found here.