Do you have trouble letting go of regrets? Is it tough to forgive those who have wronged you? Is it particularly painful to forgive yourself? Regrets, grief and self-recrimination are steps along the way to serenity, or peace of mind. But how on earth do we get there?
Freedom of Choice
The antidote, in my mind is to embrace Freedom of Choice. One reason we have troubles is that we face choices daily. We can
turn that process over to others, or we can claim it for ourselves. What this means is that you take responsibility for your choices, good, bad, and neutral. You may not always have much of a choice, or you can’t always see “around the river bend,” and we are at the mercy of the choices of others — but when you take responsibility for the outcome of your choices, serenity lies ahead.
Children Seem So Free
Have you ever noticed how free young children seem to be? Or the family dog? It’s as if they have no awareness of the consequences of their actions. They are blissfully ignorant, so to speak. It may last a lifetime for the dog, but not for the child. Soon enough the child learns that their choices don’t always work out blissfully. Year after year they experience plenty of success, some losses, and mostly neutral outcomes. After a lifetime of these lessons, peace of mind may feel far away, as the child grows into an adult with regret, grief and self-recrimination.
Guilt is a Survival Skill
Believe it or not, regret, guilt and self-recrimination are built in survival skills for human beings. (Another survival skill is blame, but I’ll leave that for later). The simple reason that we engage in guilt is that it makes us re-think our actions and to look for a better solution — for next time. In other words, you feel more powerful when you believe you can fix the problem that caused the grief (or regret) in the first place.
The problem with this working theory is that you can’t fix everything. You can’t always go back in time. Sometimes you didn’t actually cause the problem anyway. It may have been just one of those things that surprised you when you least expected it. Or perhaps another person outwitted you.
Self-Recrimination is a Survival Skill Too
Blaming yourself for an unpleasant outcome is another way to keep yourself feeling in control. Self-Recrimination is hard to shake when you really did cause the problem, or at least contributed to it. It’s especially painful when you’ve lost a friend or loved one over your actions.
I think we hang onto self-recrimination much longer. It surpasses regrets and grief in how tough it is to shake. When you really made a huge mistake, that caused harm to yourself and/or others, and you are blamed by lots of people for the problem, and there’s really no way to fix it, or even prevent it since it is a once in a lifetime error — what do you do?
Self-Forgiveness Comes First, Not Last
It took me many years to understand that the key to happiness isn’t the right to have it (guaranteed by the US Constitution), or to solve every dilemma set in front of me, but that the key to releasing myself from regrets, grief and self-recrimination came from forgiving myself first (self compassion).
I realized that I was darned lucky to have engaged all of my life in making choices. I made them freely, whether I was ignorant or not of the outcome. And each time I succeeded or failed, I had the right to choose again. Sure some of my choices led me to a place where options were minimal, but that only meant I had to reboot; accept the losses and move to another path.
Haven’t you had this experience too? When you look back on your life, does it ever occur to you that if you hadn’t failed, or hadn’t lost a loved one, you wouldn’t have grown into the wonderful person you are today. In fact, these losses show us the way forward, if you accept that only you can make the choices in your life.
I explain this process of self-forgiveness and freedom to choose, more in my new book “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you.” Through many years of struggling to keep my head above water in a devastating situation, it finally occurred to me to let go of self-recrimination and seek answers outside of the problem, and outside of myself.
I call this freedom of choice, Radiant Empathy. Radiant Empathy is a kind of wisdom that comes from realizing that the freedom to keep choosing your life is far more important than tallying your mistakes. I’m still sad over many of my losses (particularly my children), but now I view my losses as battle scars. They are just proof that I threw my whole self into life. Freedom to choose — yes that’s the antidote to Regrets, Grief and Self-Recrimination.
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