Life Without Crippling Regret

Is it possible to get past regrettable acts or conversations? Regret can lead to remorse, an often-useful feeling, especially when we’re trying to become a better person. But there comes a point when our regret and remorse can be taken too far. When our regret about an incident becomes an unproductive obsession, it’s time to fix the problem. But what “fix” could there be?

Take for instance this entirely fictional, hypothetical situation:

Sarah sat quietly on the couch with her head in a book. Across the room, Bob glanced up at her from his laptop. With her head down, the scene reminded him of the conversation nearly five years earlier when he had admitted pursuing another woman. Sarah had seen some questionable evidence and rather than lie, yet again, he finally came clean. Bob grimaced when he recalled the look on her face as she had stared at the floor for what seemed an eternity.  Memories of Sarah’s eventual emotional collapse still pierced his heart. Bob knew it wasn’t just the cheating and “confession” that had caused her so much hurt, it was the way he had rationalized, telling her it was her fault. 

Bob squirmed in his chair as his mind traveled back again and again to the pain he had caused. “How could I have hurt her so badly by cheating on her, and then push more pain on her with my lame excuses? This is the woman I’ve always loved. Sarah is the one I promised to love with my whole heart, and I’ve blown it!”

Over the years since that horrible experience, he had replayed the scene repeatedly in his mind, knowing that he had changed but not knowing how to get past the grief he had caused in the relationship. Sure, they had found a way to continue in the marriage. Sarah seemed every bit in love with him as she had always been, and Bob had proven to Sarah that he could be trusted. Sarah had forgiven him and moved on, but something was holding them back as a couple, and Bob suspected it was his own deep regret.

If only Bob could go back in time. First, he wouldn’t have cheated on Sarah. “Oh, if I could just go back and take a different path,” he would say to himself incessantly. But even if removing that transgression wasn’t possible, he would love to have another chance at the conversation in which his hurt pride and lack of respect pushed him to say things that hurt Sarah even more deeply.

Maybe your regrets are not as serious as Bob’s, or maybe they are worse. Maybe the affected relationship is with a sibling, parent, child, friend, or co-worker. We all have regrettable conversations and actions when we interact with others. When emotions are running high, human beings are notoriously lousy at carrying on productive conversations. The sad reality is that the more important the conversation, the less likely we’ll handle it appropriately.

Zuangzi, an ancient Chinese philosopher once said, “When shooting for himself, an archer has all his skills; when shooting for a brass buckle, he gets nervous. When shooting for a gold prize, he sees two targets.”

There are physiological reasons why we do not think clearly when we’re under stress. Adrenalin gets involved and our bodies literally pull resources away from the higher and more refined parts of our brains.   

In their book, “Crucial Conversations” the authors discuss ways to make future conversations emotionally “safe.” The book states, “If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety, and then find a way to talk about just about anything.” (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; 2012; Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, second edition; chapter 5; New York, NY; McGraw-Hill) The concepts in this book are extremely useful in any relationship, which is why we refer to key elements of the book in our leadership development work in China. This is all well and good, but what if the proverbial horse has already left the proverbial barn? What, if anything, can we do after the fact?

If communication isn’t challenging enough, when it comes to poorly executed conversation, sometimes the regret itself can become paralyzing and destructive. When we have deep regret about something, our minds continually access and re-live stored information in our brains. In fact, we develop entrenched pathways to that information, essentially keeping it fresh and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The key to dissolving debilitating regret is to “reframe” the original conversation or action, essentially forming new pathways in our brains. How is it done?

In our brain-science based Creative Journal Expressive Arts (CJEA) work with clients who are experiencing horrible regret, we’ve found a very effective method to reframe prior acts and stop the tortuous, obsessive re-living of prior acts. It involves a simple yet powerful exercise:

Step #1: Preparation:

  1. 2 Large pieces of blank paper (or blank pages in a standard-sized journal)
  2. Colored fine-tip markers, pencils, or crayons
  3. A pen or pencil
  4. A private, secluded location (make sure you won’t be interrupted for an hour)
  5. If possible, play some soothing instrumental music

Step #2: First Drawing

  1. With your dominant (writing) hand, draw a picture of the regrettable incident or conversation including the setting, people who were present, including yourself. Use colors that feel the most comfortable. Stick figures are fine!
  2. If the situation involved conversation, draw captions like what you would see in a Sunday morning cartoon. Draw “dialogue bubbles” for each person who said something. Now fill in the dialogue bubbles with the actual words spoken, using your dominant hand. Then create “thought bubbles” and fill in the feelings you had with your non-dominant hand, even if those feelings contradicted your words. If the dialogue was lengthy, just capture the essence of the painful conversation. It is not necessary to recreate the entire conversation.

Step #3: Process Emotions

  1. Around the picture you just drew, with your dominant hand, write ALL the thoughts and words you say to yourself now about that situation. (Use whatever writing tool feels comfortable)
  2. With your NON-dominant hand, write the feelings you continue to have about yourself and about the incident. Do this around the picture you’ve drawn. Be open to any new feelings that have propped up. (Use whatever writing tool feels comfortable)
  3. Sit for a few moments with the drawing and words that you’ve created. Recognize that you’ve gotten all these feelings out of your head and onto paper. If you need to do more drawing and more writing, do so now.

Step #4: Second Drawing

Using your dominant hand, draw the situation again with the same setting and same people. This time, however, draw and write what YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED to have said or done. What might you change if you could do it over again? What might you have done differently or said differently? With your non-dominant hand, write the feelings you would have had in the “thought bubbles.”   

Step #5: Process Emotions

Around the second drawing, with your non-dominant hand, write the feelings you now have about the situation as you’ve just re-framed it.

Step #6 (Optional): Share

It is possible that by simply putting your regret out of your head and onto paper, then re-framing the incident in your mind you can move forward in life without debilitating regret. However, if after some cooling off period following this exercise you decide you want to share your drawings with an injured party, you might find additional benefit in doing so. Only consider doing this if you are certain it will not bring further hurt to that person. Be mindful that others have not been bothered by your regret; it has been entirely yours. They may be indifferent or worse, antagonistic towards your efforts to reduce your regret. You must decide if sharing this information with an injured party is beneficial or potentially troublesome.

Our God-given, powerful brains can assist us in healing from past mistakes. We have the ability to re-shape the way we think in order move forward with more energy and confidence as we learn how to have more fulfilling relationships.

If you have any questions after working on this exercise, feel free to contact us at:

laraine@chamberlainleadership.com

chuck@chamberlainleadership.com

Buried Secrets

While working with clients in a court-mandated anger management course, one of the surprising things we learned, (as some volunteered to share with us) was the fact that so many of them had experienced the same family characteristic– secrets! We were shocked to see this apparent connection between family secrets and dangerous anger.

We recently completed a 2-day trip from Beijing to Xi’an where we saw the 2,200 year-old terracotta warriors with our son, Jeremy, and his wife Rozana. We were amazed to learn the lengths to which China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang went in order to keep a big secret– that he had built an extensive underground world, a massive tomb mirroring his above-ground world.

How did he keep the site secret? He killed anyone who knew about it! Workers who brought the life-sized army, horses, chariots and weapons to the site were tragically buried alive with them. Thousands of concubines, those failing to produce children for the young emperor, were also buried alive and the entire site was buried many meters deep.

In 1974, farmers in the area were digging a well and came across some pieces of the buried army. Today, a massive archaeological effort is still underway, and apparently most of the site is still buried.

It makes one wonder: Who and what do we sacrifice in order to keep secrets? The motivation for most family secrets is “protection.” In our experience, when we try to protect those whose actions should not be condoned, we end up violating or betraying others. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic: when we bury our secrets we need to ask ourselves who is being buried alive with them.

Pit #1 of 3. A very small section of the massive first pit.
An actual hospital bed is used to perform “surgery” on broken terracotta warriors.
archaeologists working on the terracotta horses
Terracotta horses with carriage
Even the age lines are showing on this warrior. Every warrior was hand-crafted and unique.

Stop Working on Your Marriage!

A friend of mine is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In a recent Facebook post, he included the statement: “The truth is . . healthy marriages require work.”

I respectfully disagreed and posted my comment:

I agree with everything except the word “work.” Great marriages require effort. It may sound the same, but there is a profound difference. No one wants to hear that their spouse will have to work hard to love them, but who wouldn’t want to know their spouse will put a lot of effort into the relationship? We often put as much effort into our vacations as in our vocations, but we call one play and the other work. I don’t want my wife to think it will be so difficult to love her that I will have to work at it every day. My 42-year marriage is a lot of fun and enjoyable effort.

Every time I hear the seemingly common-sense statement that a good marriage requires “work,” I tense up. Words are important. In fact, if it weren’t for a handful of words, none of us would be married. As a lay religious leader a few years back, I was suddenly granted the power in the state of New Jersey to marry people. I felt anxious when, after the first marriage ceremony I performed, a couple went away “believing” they were married. I thought to myself, “Is it something I said?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

By simply saying the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” two people were joined together for the rest of their lives. My words to them were so powerful, they caused the formation of a new family unit. A new “family tree” was planted and generation after generation of posterity would owe their existence to seven little words.

If marriage required “work,” I would need to attach that word and all of its connotations to my experience with my wife. So, let’s see if the word fits:

  • Is it “work” when I look into her bright blue eyes, see my dearest and most intimate friend, companion and lover, and remember those early dates when we would talk late into the night about our dreams and ambitions?
  • Was it “work” when I spent two years away from her, serving overseas, and couldn’t wait to get a letter from her in the mail? How about when we were finally reunited on the sidewalk of a college campus, tearfully running into each other’s arms as her classmates cheered?  
  • On our wedding day, was it “work” when I was unable to catch my breath because she walked into the room dressed as a queen in white, and I knew she would be with me forever?
  • Was it “work” when we joyfully, eagerly and unitedly accepted the challenges of  parenthood and welcomed six children into our home who stretched and expanded our love for each other?
  • Could it have been called “work” when, hand-in-hand, we held each other up to face financial disasters, the life-threatening illness of a child, physical disabilities, a missing child, kidnapped grandchildren, persecution and violence? The trials themselves might have been work but having her by my side to face those challenges certainly was not work.
  • Is it called “work” when I am able to share my deepest fears and struggles with her and she responds with amazing strength, wisdom, and an occasional kick in the pants?

No, it doesn’t fit. From my perspective, the word “work” is not appropriate to describe a healthy marriage. It is true that we need to put forth effort in marriage, but with love in our hearts, that effort can become enjoyable, fun, stress-reducing and even lifesaving.

When a dour college professor taught about the difficulties and hard work of marriage, my wife spoke up. By then she was a 55-year-old student completing her degree in Family Science. Surrounded by marriage-phobic twenty-somethings, she raised her hand and from years of marital experience that far surpassed her professor’s, she confidently stated, “Marriage is NOT hard! LIFE is hard! It can be so much easier when you have someone to share it with.”

Marriage is a force that combines the strengths and cancels out the weaknesses of two people. Marriage is greater than the sum of its parts, and therefore a powerful catalyst for change in a world that desperately needs it.  

Marriage isn’t a liability, it’s an asset. Young people contemplating marriage often think of it as a future drain on their finances, emotional well-being, and freedom. Consequently, they look for the ideal time to get married—a time when they are flush with cash, have accomplished enough of their “fun” goals, own their home, have completed their formal education, and feel ready for the “liability” of marriage. Nothing could be further from that scenario than when two committed people love each other and experience the power of a truly life-affirming marriage. Not only are they more likely to enhance their temporal situation, but also their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.

When we adjust our words about marriage, we can adjust our thinking, and ultimately access the power of our marriages. Let’s plan to put effort into our marriages, but let’s not mistake it for work. 

But what about those who feel their marriage DOES require work? Maybe they haven’t found their spouse to be the supportive, loving person they had anticipated. We need to remember that a checklist of behavioral “do’s and don’ts” will not a great marriage make. It’s not what you DO, it’s how you feel about what you do that counts. Remember the vocation and vacation analogy. When, in our hearts, we know we’re on vacation, we can expend a great deal of effort while feeling refreshed and exhilarated. If your spouse saw you as a refreshing and exhilarating partner, do you think she/he might exhibit a different attitude and have different feelings about you?

Stay tuned for more articles and helps on how to improve relationships through better emotional literacy. What are some tools you can use to change the way you feel inside?      

California or China?

China Foreign Affairs University took several foreign teachers on a weekend trip to Qingdao (or Tsingdao). Sometimes, we couldn’t tell if we were in southern California or China. Our highlights start out with an amazing harbor light show that surpasses any we’ve seen in Asia. Among other things, exterior building lights showed dolphins and whales “swimming” from one building to another in a coordinated show of lights.

Next, we hit the beach and found many surprises.

LaoShan is a massive park devoted to remembering Laozu, the founder of China’s only native religion–Taoism (pronounced Dow-ism). Laozu lived in approximately 600 BC and his sayings have been revered for many centuries. Laozu himself emphasized the bond between heaven and earth, and his sayings promote peace and non-interference. This cite features the world’s largest statue of Laozu and a circular temple with a scene of creation and stars in the cosmos inside. It was incredible.

Guess what? More beach fun!

L to R: Lynn Li Wei (our University Liaison, and acrobatics champion?), Julian (she doesn’t normally look like this), Laraine (looking oddly frightened), Chuck (got the most height, obviously), Cory (like he’s being lifted up to the mother ship), Marcus (not sure what he’s going for here), Dan Rong (Dept. Supervisor and apparent cheerleader), Mike (proving that “white people” really can’t jump)

The food was incredible.

Back at the main pier, the tide was low but the hope of getting some crabs was high. This is a favorite local past-time.

On a hilltop, you can enter a revolving lookout station and view the harbor, the surrounding hills and even the governor’s mansion. Qingdao is known for its clear weather, red roofs and greenery.

It’s fun to interact with the locals, especially the children.

Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

Our university sponsored our attendance at a Saturday morning International Kite Flying event in Beijing on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Only problem? Not much wind . . but our moods were certainly soaring! We learned something about flying a kite with very little wind: it’s all about HOPE. Every time you lift that kite into the air, start to run, and let out the string, you are filled with hope that THIS time will be the magical moment when the kite takes off. We got to learn from a master kite-maker and make our own kites while watching teams of kite enthusiasts attempting to get giant kites aloft.

Ruth Ann and Mike Martin brought their daughter Stacy, her husband Joseph, and their two little kids. They were a hit with the media.

International Kite Event in Beijing.(L to R): Joseph, Lynn (our University Liaison), Marcus, Ruth Ann, Eli (child), Mike, Luke (child), Stacy, Chuck, Laraine, Cory
A Master Kite Maker at Work
Chuck builds his kite with a little help from the master.
Lynn brought her mother–a very sweet lady. This was during a Labor Day holiday in Beijing.
A giant kite couldn’t quite make it off the ground.

Ever Wonder Where the Great Wall Ends? We Found it!

A group of us sat around one day and said, “Hey, where does China’s great wall end, anyway?” Next thing you know, we found the end–where the great wall hits the ocean. Check out these pics:

LaoLungTou (Old Dragon’s Head” is the name of the spot where the wall meets the ocean.
Chuck and Laraine Chamberlain at LaoLungTou (Old Dragon’s Head)
The Great Wall descending from the nearby hills on it’s way to the ocean. In the foreground, the “Great Wall” is more like mounds of dirt. You can see how the wall disappears. Then, closer to the ocean, it was restored.
This is an original part of the wall that led to the water. Many parts of the wall have had the bricks removed to use for other projects

Our trip included fun in the sun and sand at the beach, waiting in a visitor’s waiting room to cool off after our long trek, colorful kites, antique doors, the Goddess of the Sea, various historical figures, and even a very tall city wall connecting to the Great Wall.

The Motley Crew outside our university excited to get on the bus and head out to see where the Great Wall ends. (L to R): Kevin, Joseph, Eli (child), Mike, Stacey, Ruth Ann, Laraine, Ryan, Harris, Sai, “Zhurki”, Luke (child), Chris, Chuck

Chinese Students are Surprised by Leadership Concepts

Statue of former Premier Zhou Enlai and CFAU President Chen Yi in front of CFAU auditorium

Remembering that first class day in September when a new crop of leadership students at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) looked up at me expectantly, I could almost see the questions forming behind those beautiful brown eyes.

“Who is this American, and what will we be doing in this ‘leadership’ class?” “Does he really think we need to learn about leadership—something so far into our future?”

On that first day, I looked into their skeptical eyes and got no response when I said, “Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a leader.” Polling the class, I verified what I had already discovered about most students in China: they think of leadership only in terms of positional power.

I then did something unexpected: I showed four short video clips of orchestra conductors leading their orchestras. Each had a unique style. One kept a steady metronome-like beat, showing no emotion on his face. Another closed his eyes while swaying and waving his arms in oversized motions. A third conductor did an exuberant little dance while gesturing with his arms. The fourth was the most unusual. He did nothing with his body and, strangely, kept his arms folded while simply raising his eyebrows occasionally and pursing his lips. This brought some nervous laughter from the class.  

As the music went silent, I looked around the room at puzzled expressions. Breaking the silence, I said, “The true essence of leadership is simply manifesting your most important values. Can you tell what the first conductor valued?”

Getting no response, I continued, “The first conductor valued a regular, steady rhythm.” I then imitated this maestro’s robot-like precision.

“What about the second conductor?” Again, no response. I closed my eyes and made big motions with my arms. “Can you tell this conductor really valued the emotions of his music?”

“What about the third conductor?” I asked. Finally, a timid student piped up, “He likes to dance.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “He seems to value physical movement and expression.” Several students nodded in agreement.

“How about the fourth conductor?” This brought snickers as the students remembered the conductor who seemed to do nothing. “Can you tell what he values?” All heads went down to their desks.

“It might be hard to recognize, but can you see that this conductor valued the musicians’ individual and collective expression and interpretation of the music—even without his involvement? He wants them to come forth with their own expressions. But it doesn’t make him any less a leader, does it?”

As the school year progressed, students became less skeptical, more engaged and more determined to be “values-expressing” leaders. They joined me in exploring leadership through discussion and memorable activities. We went through John C. Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership, examining case studies, working in teams to make critical decisions in simulated conditions, and even analyzing Deputy Barney Fife’s humorous behavior as a “Level 1” leader in the old American sit-com, The Andy Griffith Show. We worked through concepts in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (Kerry Patterson et al.) by creating simulated conflicts and allowing students to practice newly learned techniques to resolve those conflicts. We used unusual, right-hand/left-hand writing and drawing methods developed by Dr. Lucia Cappachione (The Power of Your Other Hand, etc.) to become more self-aware in order to more effectively lead others.

Students kept a leadership journal, starting with a list of their most important values. As the year continued, some were able to share from their journal and examine how well they had expressed those important values with others in their class, in their teams, in their community and at home.  

Finally, at the end of the year, we examined Fortune Magazine’s list of the 50 top world leaders. Choosing the top twelve who happened to be leaders in government, business, activism and philanthropy, we discussed what they all had in common. Because the list included male and female, old and young (even a 16-year- old), rich and poor, employers and employees, etc., the common element was obvious. Each leader had been successful in identifying a value within themselves and moving heaven and earth to express and manifest that value. Students’ understanding of leadership and their roles in it had taken a huge jump forward from the first day of class.  

China Foreign Affairs University is the “cradle of diplomacy” for China. All Chinese diplomats must receive training at CFAU, and a large percentage of China’s diplomats have also received undergraduate or graduate degrees at CFAU. It feels good to know this powerful nation’s future is in the hands of those who have a better understanding and passion for leadership.

What might the world reap from the seeds sown in my “leadership crop” this year?

A view of the “new campus” in Sha He area of Beijing
New campus “teaching building” for Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors
Gate to “Old Campus” in heart of Beijing (Xi Cheng District) Seniors are taught in the main building (shown)
Statue of Founding President Chen Yi in front of Main Building of Old Campus
Lobby of our residence (International Exchange Center)

Sculpture Park in Beijing

A beautiful sculpture park is found just 45 minutes away from our apartment (by bicycle). We’ve been there a couple of times. The sculptures are amazing–from various parts of the world. Here are just a few:

beautiful blossoms
Beautiful blossoms were out in the spring at Beijing’s Sculpture Park
I have to say I haven’t seen works of art quite like this before.
This park has a little amusement park for the children so here is a ride for your child… Not sure kids want to ride with a guy like that……

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

Our university invited us to attend a conference in a “small” town of just 1.2 million people. We accepted the invitation and soon found that we were the guests of honor (token Americans) at a huge “friendship walk” in central China. In XinYang, we were “wined and dined,” put up in a 5-star hotel, and treated like royalty.

At the Opening Ceremonies, we were escorted into a stadium filled with thousands of cheering people. I was given a red jacket with a Chinese flag over my heart, and put on stage with about 11 other foreigners. They introduced me as a distinguished teacher from America while thousands of people cheered, a half-dozen drones flew around our heads, taking pictures, and television cameras recorded everything.

When it came time to leave on the 13 Km walk, we were mobbed by people wanting our picture. Even as we walked away and came to a small village, I stopped to stretch and young boys pulled out their phones to get pictures. My memory is bending over at the waist to stretch my hamstring while a young boy laid on the ground, peering up at my sagging red face with his camera a few inches from my nose. I don’t even want to see that picture. — Chuck Chamberlain

Key to pictures below: 1) Pic with host at dinner 2) Another host at dinner 3) host with Lynne, our school liaison 4) on our walk, these men stared very intently at us, and it seemed they had never seen an American in person. We asked to take their picture 5) workers harvesting tea leaves -so beautiful 6) more greenery on our walk 7) Card playing in hotel lobby, two girls from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan joined us 8) Fellow teacher, Cory, is very tall and a magnet for picture taking 9) little guy and his mom very curious about us 10) trying to stretch, missed the best picture of the boy on the ground getting my face as I bent over 11) forming C-F-A-U with our fingers 12) Introduced as a high muckety muck 13) fellow big shots on stage 14) One of the many drones getting our picture 15) With fellow big shots 16)Chuck, Laraine, Lynn, Cory, and a local helper 17) in our hotel lobby

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Life as a guest big shot “foreigner” can be exhausting
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