Antidote to Regret, Grief and Self-Recrimination

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

If only it were this clear to choose.

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.

Radiant Empathy

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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19 Replies to “Antidote to Regret, Grief and Self-Recrimination”

  1. Such a great post! I find myself dwelling in “what if, and or buts”, then blaming myself for choices I have made. I never thought to go to self-compassion first…..thank-you for this insight…

    1. We all forget how important it is to go to self compassion first. Choose to forgive yourself. And be amazed that we have the gift of choice.

    1. That’s the spirit! Taking your life back and never doubting for a moment that you are amazing, gives you the courage you need to navigate this difficult Earth.

  2. Self-forgiveness is the hardest, but am learning. Also that such self-blame is a form of pride that I’ve needed to let go of.

    1. It is so sweet to get your comment Sue. I loved those days as a child, when my Hoosier Dad would take the family to visit friends. We kids would play outside until it got dark. The grownups would be inside chatting and playing cards, until dinner time. Then we would all eat around the table, the potluck that we all brought together. As the evening waned, my Dad would carry sleeping children to the car, for the ride home. Yes, I rather like that my blog is like “a friend dropping in.” I hope we will be friends for a long time.

  3. What A wonderful blog you have written!!! I feel it very deep inside myself.
    For years, I would always examine myself as to what I had done wrong, even if there was no way I was in the wrong. I seemed to go through many traumas. I am the kind of person who walks around with “laughing depression” and few people ever understand it.
    In 2014, I went through a horrendous test. My first cousin was stealing money and abusing an elderly person who has been brain-damaged from youth. When I found out, I stepped in, got legal help, and took over legally to help this old gentleman. I was devastated by what my cousin did. I went through strange feelings of anger & sadness with my cousin. To this day I have never spoken with him again after the law took care of things… But I felt guilty even though I was forced into these circumstances. I spent a year and a half in major depression. I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I had done right. But I knew I had to get over my anger and find a way to forgive my cousin so I would not continue to feel what I was feeling.
    Then I learned a very important thing! I learned the meaning of the word MERCY. It actually means “More Pity then justice requires!” That released me from my feelings toward my cousin. It opened up the way to forgive him, although I still feel he is not good association. And it brought me out of the major depression! Forgiving him mentally and emotionally took away any feelings of feeling guilty on my part.
    Your blog makes me feel that I am very happy and at peace like you explained. Thank you!!!

    1. What an amazing journey you have been on Audrey. So profound too, that you notice that Mercy is a counterpoint to justice. So many times, we seek justice, only to be left feeling empty. But with forgiveness and mercy, we are set free.

  4. Kathy,
    Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom.
    I, for one, greatly appreciate your efforts. You have a great gift and the most precious part of it is your generosity.

  5. Thank you for the original post and all the comments. These ideas speak powerfully to me. I can see that I have started this journey and it’s so comforting to know that others are on this path to keep me company, share experiences with and learn from.

    1. I, too, am so moved (today especially—-timing!!) by reading your deep and powerful and wise words here, Dr. Kathy! Thank you!

  6. Thank you so much. I have only recently discovered that I have been struggling with self-recrimination for my of my life. It is good to read words that address the issue and that offer a new perspective on it.

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