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.

Trigger Me, I Dare You — (Pt. 3)

Triggers Are Opportunities

There is an assumption in society that it’s best to avoid triggers. After all, they can lead to destruction at worst, or extreme discomfort at best. But there are good reasons why triggers, despite their discomfort, can be opportunities in disguise. When a prior traumatic experience is triggered, there is a window of opportunity to deal with it effectively. Often, until triggered, those traumatic and incompletely processed experiences remain so far “backstage” it isn’t possible to effectively process them. With the right tools, a trigger opportunity can bring about a lasting change in a person’s life. Sometimes, the right “tool” is a mental health professional, especially if the triggered experience is deemed to be overwhelming or induces an inclination to do harm to self or others. Often, triggers can be processed on your own, and there are tools available to help.

I will share a private, powerful aspect of my life: I was sexually abused and bullied as a child and sexually assaulted as an adult. Perhaps the worst and most pervasive feeling during these incidents was the feeling of being unable to control the situation. Consequently, as an adult, I have often been triggered by anything that even approximates control. For example, I have seldom been able to comfortably allow someone else to drive a car in which I was a passenger. In fact, I’ve even found flying in a commercial aircraft uncomfortable, not because I feared crashing, but because I was not the pilot! I’ve also found myself triggered when my wife would do anything that even smelled like control. She’s often described these experiences as, “walking on eggshells.” Obviously, this is not a condition that is good for relationships.

Living and working in China, where there is so much control held by government officials in every aspect of life, I have experienced triggers due to this issue of control. With so many trigger opportunities, I’ve been able to use CJEA (Creative Journal Expressive Arts) techniques to gain a better understanding and control of my own emotions during these triggering incidents.

CJEA is a brain-science-based method of creative expression developed by Dr. Lucia Capacchione in the 1970’s when she experienced some difficult health issues. It is currently the method of choice for a growing community of certified practitioners working with organizations within the military, schools, corrections departments, courts, public safety departments, corporations, and with individuals, couples and families. CJEA utilizes the power and unique characteristics of both sides of the brain. This is done by expressing one’s self through movement, drawing, sketching or sculpting combined with writing using both the dominant and non-dominant hand.

One day recently, after experiencing a “control issue” trigger that unleashed emotional and physical symptoms (irritability and sudden intestinal cramping), I seized the opportunity to explore more about my control issues using some simple CJEA techniques. Fortunately, I had my Beijing apartment to myself that day. I placed a blank piece of paper on the table and used my dominant hand (right hand, in my case) to write questions to myself, based on the CJEA training I had received. Then, with various colored pencils, I used my left hand to scribble the answers using either text or drawing.

By doing this, I was able to tap into parts of my brain that seemed resistant to connect to my brain’s speech centers, and therefore were not often utilized when trying to talk over my concerns with my wife or anyone else. These parts of me had held onto emotional content that had not been expressed since I was a child. Metaphorically speaking, this abused child within me had been wandering around just off-stage, making trouble. Now I was giving “him” unprecedented access to say what was on his mind. And he did! He expressed terrible feelings and wanted assurances from me (the adult me) that I would be more conscious of him and his concerns. I offered some heartfelt promises, and immediately felt more peaceful.

If this communication with myself sounds bizarre to you, I assure you that you too have various parts of you. Each part has its own energy level and each part experiences life a little differently. During my extensive training with Dr. Capacchione, one of the most intriguing revelations to me was that we all have specific parts within us, doing specific functions. It isn’t mysterious; it’s simply the way we were all built.   

It wasn’t necessary, at least during this episode, to re-hash and remember all the abuse. If I had noticed the discussion going in that direction, I might have waited for my wife to be present, or at least in another room. No, I simply needed to communicate and negotiate with a childlike part of me about the feelings of being controlled.

From this experience and many like it, I have learned that I am an excellent therapeutic guide for my own mental health. I do not have a pathology and therefore do not need the help of a certified mental health professional. If that should ever become necessary, I wouldn’t hesitate to make use of that additional resource.

There is no reason to live a life full of misery and frustration. When the “Broadway play” that is life seems to be more chaotic than it should be, there is hope.

Chuck and Laraine Chamberlain have been trained and certified in CJEA techniques. For more information about CJEA, click here. For information about Dr. Lucia Capacchione’s books, click here