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How to unstuck (and avoid regret)

Updated: 7 days ago

Spam Filter For Your Brain - Episode 43

This week I wanted to talk about the glorious subject of regret.

Regret is such a sticky, horrible emotion that we get ourselves dipped in and find it hard to get out of; I'm thinking very treacly, quicksand, poison ivy... It's all those cartoons of trying to escape from something that keeps pulling you down desperately. And I think they keep pulling you down a bit is a shame. And regret is based on the premise that if I had not done a particular thing, had not said a specific something, or had an individual item hadn't happened, then I wouldn't feel the way I feel now. Now, this is a natural way of thinking about things we're taught.

We can often look at the things around us to see how they make us feel. But the reality is that our emotions are sensations in our own body which are processed by our brain, and they are ours and ours alone, and they come from the thoughts we're thinking. And we know that otherwise, everything in the world that unfolded would generate precisely the same emotion for all humans. But that isn't true because people think differently about circumstances that occur around us all the time.

And that could be anything from how people react to losing their keys to how they think about having narrowly avoided a catastrophe or whether it's as mundane as whether someone might like to go for a walk in the woods. Someone might think of that as the most joyful thing in the world and having some time for themselves. Someone might think of it as completely and utterly relaxing and exactly what they need. And someone might think of it as the most excruciating thing in the world, and they'd instead be playing computer games. Someone else might be filled with trepidation about the pollen, sneezing, allergies, bugs, and a thousand other things. And it isn't the walk or the woods that makes those emotions happen for people. It's the thoughts that people are thinking about it.

So when we apply this to regret, we can look at the idea of anything that has happened in our past (very hard to regret things in the future). If we look at things that have occurred in the past, we think that that occurrence, that instance of what has unfolded, is causing the thoughts we're having now. But situations have happened in the past in a timeline we made up (humans entirely invent time. It's still a tangible thing we could hold). Something that's happened in the past cannot cause our current feelings because our feelings come from our thoughts, and we can choose what we think about things. If, for example, I regret that I didn't go to university, I don't, but it's possible that I could look to that as a circumstance that would give me a different outcome now. So I could regret that I didn't go to university and think, oh, that's causing me to feel like I'm not financially solvent right now. Things are insensitive; I'm having a tough time there, and generally, day-to-day paying the bills is quite scary because I didn't make the right choice in the past, and it is the thought that I didn't make the right choice causing that feeling of regret.

Or we could have precisely the same circumstances. This is the truth for me: I didn't go to university. And what I think about it is, "Thank fuck, I'm not in that much debt". Would I still be paying off student loans? Probably. Would it have meant that? It told me I wouldn't have been able to start my business when I was 18. I would have made many new friends and had a very different social, additional social short circle to the one I now have. But as I don't drink, I think it also might have been quite a weird sort of struggle of how to socialise in that kind of context, and I wouldn't have made some of the incredible friends that I have within the circus industry that I still hold on to from my very young working life.

So my thought about the fact that I didn't go to university, interestingly, still relates to money, and I think like, oh my gosh, I don't have that debt hanging over me, and it's a relief actually that I didn't go to university and the circumstances haven't changed there. My feelings are different because I have other thoughts that can be applied across the board. And that's probably nice for some instances in life, but some things are enormous.

And what comes to mind is that sometimes it's better to talk about specific examples rather than these theoretical concepts. Another example I can think of was I was due to go on a date with somebody I really shouldn't have been going on a date with. Not that there was anything particularly wrong, I just knew in my heart that this guy would not be suitable for me, probably not for me. And he was leaving the country soon... There was a whole load of things set up where I shouldn't have been going on a date with this guy, but I thought he was charming, so I was ignoring all of my instincts on that. And on the way that morning, not actually on the way to the date that morning, I came off my bike, smashed up my face, broke my arm, and ended up with a black eye.

And I didn't end up going on a date, incidentally, not because I was mashed up, because he stood me up even though I had a black eye and just came out by any, I mean fair, kind of. That shows that I should be going on a date with him. But I could look at if you were to look from the outside, you could go like how could you feel not feel regret about having a road accident? Well, there's an example. I absolutely luckily avoided the fellow. Who knows what could have happened? And maybe it's a lesson for me to listen to my body a bit more before the universe slams me sideways and says, "Can you pay attention to what we're trying to tell you, please? It's sometimes that basic, but sometimes there are significant lessons.

It's many tales of my personal life involved in this episode. Still, I want to illustrate that nothing in your past has a scientifically correct response that you should be thinking about, and that equals regret because it was the bad and the wrong thing. And everybody knows that to be true.

And you probably have some things in your past where you're just like, "Well, anybody would know that that is a bad thing, and we should have made a different choice. I should have responded differently". And there is no empirical measure to it because you can change how you feel about anything at the moment by looking at how you want to treat yourself with more compassion and kindness about the situation that you are in right now. So rather than looking to the past to try and change things that have already happened, it's completely impossible to change the past. The phrase it's like it's "as gone as Rome" or something. Someone tells me, messages me and tells me what the actual word is. But we have all the power to change and control how we think now, and it might be hard to get away from something that you've been thinking about or regretting for a long time. "I shouldn't have done that.", "I shouldn't have gone there". "I shouldn't have said that to that person". But maybe in this particular moment, is there a thought you could find that would make you feel 2% better about it?

"Maybe I shouldn't have said that thing to that person, and I would like to learn to use this opportunity not to do the same in the future". Maybe "I shouldn't have said that thing to that person, but I was upset". Maybe "I shouldn't have said that thing to that person, and I apologised". Maybe "I shouldn't have said that thing to that person, and I'm going to try and do better next time", make it gentle. Don't be like, "I should never do this thing ever again, I promise. And vow to myself that that's the end of the thing".

What can make it a little bit better and see if that shifts you from inconsolable regret and chastising all the things you've ever done and stacking up all the reasons that you're a terrible person to "Oh yeah, that was a human reaction". Or, even better, a thought you can pull out randomly. "I'm allowed to make mistakes" because that's what it comes down to. Most of us just don't believe that we're allowed to make mistakes. We think we've got to get it right all the time. And that is quite a painful metric to set up for both yourself and those around you.

So maybe the lesson from this week is to try and find little ways to cut yourself a bit more slack and try and generate a micro millimetre of more compassion for yourself and see if it eases up some of the thoughts that feel like they weigh you down. I hope that's been useful and I'll speak to you next week.


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