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:

Pedaling to Harmony in Beijing

[The following article was written in October, 2018 by Charles J. Chamberlain. All rights reserved.]

Rounding a busy corner one unusually clear morning, I guided my bicycle carefully into heavy two-wheeled traffic. Suddenly in front of me was a pig-tailed young school-girl sitting side-saddle. Her mother pedaled furiously, and the young girl sat casually behind her, reading a homework assignment while simultaneously eating a breakfast roll and occasionally grabbing mom’s jacket for balance.  I marveled, not so much at the sight in front of me but at the apparent ordinariness of it all, at least in the eyes of the Chinese people around me. No one batted an eye.

Beijing bicyclists

Beijing bicyclists. Courtesy of GettyImages.

Key to Chinese Culture

That morning, the girl and her mom were only two people in a sea of millions of “rush hour” commuters on bikes, scooters, taxis, vans, private cars, and vehicles that defied categorization. What these millions of travelers taught me that morning and hundreds of other mornings was a key to understanding important aspects of Chinese culture, and ultimately human nature.

The ancient Chinese Capitol city of 23 million boasts wide streets flanked on either side by bicycle lanes, which are also bordered by brick sidewalks. It sounds like a city planner’s dream until you see how these channels of humanity are used. At times, the roadway becomes a pedestrian walkway, the sidewalk transforms into a thoroughfare for scooters, and the bike lanes turn into bus routes. In addition, notions of “drive on the right” or “drive on the left” are often tossed out the window like day-old rice.

Most Americans would call it chaos. The western world, with its emphasis on “rule of law,” cringes at the thought of such “disarray” and disregard for safety. However, any westerner who spends more than a month or two amidst the pandemonium must come to a stunning realization: Dang it. It works.

Bicycling safely around the streets of Beijing leaves you with the disorienting suspicion that you’re missing something, like entering a room illuminated with ultra-violet light, when your eyes strain to see things that are just beyond their capability. When you navigate the streets of Beijing on a bicycle, you participate in an intricate dance with an unknown set of rules, using an unknown method of communication. It seems just beyond your human capacity to understand why you arrived safely at your destination.

The bedrock of American society is its system of laws. Americans assume that road safety is a function of obeying a rigid set of traffic laws. Even though the Chinese have traffic laws, they don’t look at them or follow them in the same way. No, there is something far more compelling than laws to keep the roadways safe. This intangible “thing” is difficult to describe but has a wider impact on China and its people in all areas of life. This “thing” represents a fundamental difference between two cultures. What is it? It’s harmony based on trust. The Chinese people have a profound trust in each other and the harmony of their society, not in sterile text written in dusty law books.

American vs Chinese Peace and Safety

When riding a bicycle through Beijing, your trip will be punctuated by numerous incursions into “your space” by people in various vehicles who don’t pause or even look in your direction before entering the road from a driveway, or who don’t slow down to make right turns. You will encounter people who stop suddenly in the middle of a road, leaving their vehicles unattended. You will play “chicken” with vehicles coming head-on in “your” lane. These are conditions every bicyclist will see within just a few minutes on the road.

If, while cycling in Beijing, you hold fast to the American dogma that you have been granted rights to a specific space on the road, going a specific speed, in a specific direction, and that each vehicle sits in a legally protected bubble of these rights, you will have a miserable experience. You will develop road rage as you insist on your rights, and you will “stop and go” instead of “go with the flow.”

Forming a Bridge to the Chinese Culture

If, on the other hand, you relax your guard and realize that everyone on the road is part of a harmonious, moving, flowing organism, you will participate in a relaxing cultural experience like no other. When the Chinese people put their trust in their fellow travelers, it is based on a tradition of congruency. In other words, as a fellow traveler, you are expected to make your actions congruent with your intent. If you intend to travel on the right at a certain speed, then do it. Don’t hesitate. Don’t slam on your brakes because someone has crossed your path ahead. If you intend to travel on the left, be consistent and congruent with that intent.

You soon achieve an almost Zen-like state while bicycling the busy streets. Somehow, you are relaxed yet hyper-vigilant. You can predict in advance when a fellow traveler is about to enter your lane. As you engage with others on the road in this way, you become absorbed in a trusting fellowship with the Chinese people. Your bicycle soon becomes the means of building a bridge to a strikingly cohesive, collective culture. Harmony, balance, movement, and flow are rooted in Chinese culture. One point of access to this culture can be found on two wheels.