In this blog I often talk about shame, which I define as attaching the concept of ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ to something which you believe is true about you. What I haven’t yet discussed in much detail are the different timezones related to shame. Today, we’re going to look at shame about the past, otherwise known as regret.
Regret, like all forms of shame, reduces confidence. If you look back at your former self and decide that you did something ‘wrong’, you will believe that your current self is a reflection of your previous failures. If you cannot accept your past, it will haunt your present and determine your future.
WHAT IS THE PAST?
Psychologically speaking, the past does not exist. You cannot view it objectively. Even the most detailed video recordings are biased and edited. An accurate and unbiased perspective of the past does not exist. Historical accounts are written subjectively. And even if an unbiased view of the past did exist, you would still view that evidence in the present moment with biases and cognitive filters, which would make the viewing subjective.
The past does not exist; we just think it does.
When you look back at the past you are not actually travelling in time. Your conscious awareness still exists in the present moment; you are simply viewing memories. This is like watching an old home-video. The images were created in the past but you are viewing them in the present. This seemingly obvious point is extremely important to remember, because regret is based on the belief that the past could have been different to what it was. More on this later…
THE PROBLEM WITH MEMORIES
So “the past” is really nothing more than the conscious reviewing of memories, whilst being in the present. This prompts me to share a story:
My brother and I have an ongoing argument that goes back for years. It refers to an incident when I was a child. I was at a party and saw a bowl of chocolate-coated almonds on a table. Being a small boy I immediately grabbed a massive handful of these and shoved them in my mouth. This was followed immediately by theatrical vomiting, all over the floor, because what I thought were almonds were actually olives, the grossest thing on the planet.
The problem with this story is that my brother believes that it happened to him, not me. I trust him when he says he thinks it was him. He believes it is his story, that he was the infamous olive-eater, while I believe it was me with equal certainty. At least one of us is wrong. Even more concerning, we might both be wrong. We may have witnessed someone else do it, or seen it on a movie. We will never know the truth about that night.
I’ve had times where I realised that what I thought was a memory of a real-life event was actually a memory of a dream I had. I’ve had other times when I’ve fictionalised parts of a true story about myself, to make it more entertaining, and then later on I’ve struggled to distinguish the parts I made up from the parts that actually happened.
Research shows clearly that eye-witness testimony is unreliable at best. People do not accurately recall events, particularly when under emotional duress. Details get exchanged for fiction as the person adds their perspectives, beliefs and biases to the information. A racist guy will be more likely to say the perpetrator was black; a domestic-violence victim will be more likely to say the perpetrator was male; Donald Trump’s will be more likely to blame immigrants.
We cannot trust our memories. You cannot objectively recall any single episode of your life. You add non-factual information and stories to the event at the time it happens, without even being aware that you’re doing it, and then you add new bullshit to the event’s memory each time you review it! Your memories are changed over time.
So before you decide you regret something, note that you do not accurately recall the thing you regret. You are making yourself feel upset about something you made up, based on a true story, perhaps, but ultimately a completely fictional account.
THERE WAS NO OTHER WAY IT COULD HAVE HAPPENED
As mentioned earlier, regret is based on the belief that alternative realities exist. Because humans have the ability to produce counterfactual realities (i.e. we can make up stuff), we run the risk of believing that these realities actually exist. We imagine an alternative option and believe that it is or was available to us.
When you look back and say “I wish I hadn’t done that” or “I should have done this instead”, what you are really saying is “There is another reality that exists that I missed out on”. Regret is the feeling of missing out. But where exactly is the reality that you missed?
Just because you can imagine an alternative outcome, decision or behaviour, doesn’t mean it’s real! When I look back with regret at the time I spent being a Nice Guy, I’m imagining a possible reality where I wasn’t a Nice Guy, and therefore lived in a more assertive, honest and generous way. Yet that ‘other’ way of living does not exist, and has never existed. It is merely a story my mind made up. It is as true and realistic as Harry Potter, although he probably got laid more than I did.
When a human makes a decision, we imagine alternative possible scenarios. You imagine that if you choose option A, a certain outcome will happen, and if you choose option B, a different outcome will happen. This is what allows us to make plans and achieve great things, without always having to resort to random trial and error. But the problem is that we think by choosing A we have therefore missed out on B. This is a misunderstanding:
The truth is that both A and B never existed at all!
Once you chose A, what really ends up happening is more like a variation of A – call it “A2” – which is a different outcome, one you did not predict with 100% accuracy. And as soon as you chose A, B disappeared forever. It is no longer available, as choosing A eliminates B’s potential completely. Of course, B was never actually available, because a prediction of the future does not exist in reality. It is a made-up story in your head.
Regret is based on the concept that you “chose A when you should have chosen B”, and now your life is less than it could be, because B was a “better” choice than A. This is completely irrational. Once you chose A, the potential for B to exist died completely. B was completely eliminated as an option, so you haven’t missed out on anything. And the fact is there was nothing to miss out on, because it was all fictional the entire time.
The other thing to bear in mind is that just because you can predict the alternative scenario doesn’t mean it’s the only alternative. You can’t be sure that choosing B would have worked out better. Maybe B could have led you to walk in front of a bus, or catch a terminal disease, due to changing the path you took. Your life may have been 10 times worse if you had chosen B. You will never know, because B never existed.
More importantly, you never really chose A either…
YOU DID THE BEST YOU COULD
If B was a better choice, then why did you choose A? It’s simple: because A appeared to be the best option available at the time. It’s only with fictional hindsight that you now “know” that B was the better choice. If you had known then what you know now, you would have chosen B, right?
You can’t have known that B was the right choice. The proof of that is in your decision to choose A. Do you ever consciously choose the worst option? No, you always do what you think is best at the time. Later on, when you’re wiser, you change your belief as to which option was better. But how did you become wiser? You learned from your mistake. You could not have learned from your mistake if you had originally chosen B, so therefore, no matter how you look at it, B was never really an option. Given who you were at the time you made the decision, there was only ever A.
If you were teaching someone to play guitar, would you expect them to shred out a vicious solo in their first lesson? Of course not, because you know they haven’t learned enough to be able to perform in such a way. Yet when you look back at your past self you expect that ‘you’ to know more than they did at the time. You are basically expecting that your “beginner” self should have been ready to bust out a solo without having learned how. Pretty unreasonable expectation, don’t you think?
You always make the best decision you can possibly make, every single time. You never look at two options and think “I’m going to choose the one that will fuck up the rest of my life”. Even if you did think that, it would mean you want to experience harm for some reason, so your decision will still be the best you could make at the time.
Regret claims that not only was option B available (it wasn’t), but that you should have somehow been wiser than you were at the time (impossible). Can you see how regret is completely insane?
HOW YOU CAN MANAGE REGRET
If you’ve read this far, I hope you’re on board with the idea that regret is insanity and dwelling on it only serves to reduce your self-confidence. You can learn from mistakes without requiring regret or shaming yourself. You can improve without needing to punish yourself for what is essentially learning. Regret really serves no useful purpose.
Once you’ve accepted the truth that your memory cannot be trusted, it’s time to rewrite your memories to make them more helpful to your long-term success. I do not mean lie to yourself about what happened. I’m actually talking about being more honest in your recall.
If you remember something from your own perspective, the memory will be completely biased by your beliefs, fears, and emotional reactions. One way to improve the accuracy of your recall is to distance yourself personally from the memory. In other words, look at it from another person’s point of view.
I like to view my memories as if I’m a psychologist who understands human nature, watching a guy named Dan. So if I look back on when Dan was a Nice Guy, say to a time when he “pussied out” of standing up for himself, the ‘psychologist’ in me views the event and says “Well, he’s obviously unable to see that he’s being controlled by fear, so he backs down to avoid conflict, without realising that he is creating further issues for himself”. The psychologist knows that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.
Try it right now. Choose something you regret and analyse it, as if you are looking at someone else, someone you care for. Try to view it compassionately, with understanding and acceptance. What was really happening? Were you really such a terrible person, or were you doing the best you knew how at the time? Even if you were pussying out of something important, it was still the best you were capable of at the time. If you were capable of better, you would have done it better, simple as that. We don’t ever consciously choose the worst option, we always go with what we think is best, according to what we believe at the exact time of the decision.
The other key method I like to use to manage regret is to practice what I call gratitude linking. Simply put, I figure out what I’m presently grateful for, and then I link that to my past ‘mistakes’. For example, right now I’m grateful that I’m able to coach guys into becoming socially confident, so that they enjoy life more than they ever have before. I would not be able to do this if I hadn’t been a Nice Guy myself and suffered through low social confidence in the past.
If you like who you are now, it’s hard to regret something when you can clearly see how it was a building block to becoming this person. Who you are now is a direct result of everything you’ve ever done or been influenced by. So if you start living by your values NOW and create a life that’s meaningful and enjoyable, every moment of your past becomes valuable and worthwhile – steps you had to take to get to where you are.
In short, the solution to regret is to live by your values. If you can become the person you wish you were, then your past will become something you treasure, because it created you.
To discover how you can live by your values and free of regret, subscribe to receive the 3 FREE Confidence Training videos from the 3X Authenticity and Confidence Masterclass Programme