This article first appeared on Happify
How often have you said something and instantly wished you could take it back? Maybe you spoke too soon. Maybe it didn’t come out right. Maybe it was the expression on the other person’s face that made you regret what came out of your mouth.
How often did you not say what you needed to, only to replay the conversation that could’ve been? The love you could’ve shown. The bold conversation you could’ve had. And all you’re left with is the agony of “if only.”
“If only I’d spoken up.”
“If only I’d stayed quiet.”
“If only I had said it differently.”
These regrets barge relentlessly into your mental space and leave you feeling worse about yourself every single time.
We’ve all been there. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve walked away from an interaction, convinced it didn’t go well and desperately wishing it had gone differently. Some years ago, I would get stuck in this inner dialogue and chastise myself for what I should have done and didn’t do—an underlying message of inadequacy that rarely led to clear thinking.
What it did lead to was secretive behaviors I rarely felt good about. Diving for the tub of ice cream, rummaging through the kitchen cabinets for comfort food, avoiding eye contact with the very people who could’ve helped me see the light. There was an underlying shame that accompanied my “mistakes,” real or perceived, and the only way out was to raise the bar even higher for myself. Desperate attempts to please or prove myself in other ways. Constant vigilance for criticism or disapproval.
Eventually, all roads led to failure.
In the many years since, I have researched the psychological construct of self-worth and developed a three-step process that can help us grow through a negative encounter rather than close down in shame or blame because of it.
Step 1: Meet the Emotion with Compassion
Self-compassion helps calm feelings of shame and inadequacy because it talks the language of emotion. Think of it as a loving and responsive parent who holds their emotional child in a warm embrace and listens to them without judgment. Many people don’t know how to say a kind word to themselves because they don’t remember ever being spoken to that way. Many others believe that being kind to themselves when they’ve said something they shouldn’t have or made a fool of themselves will simply give them the permission to repeat the same mistakes. Far from it! Research from the Compassionate Mind Foundation shows that when you speak to yourself with kindness and understanding, you actually build the courage and conscious awareness to take corrective action where needed.
Practice: Breathe into the emotions with understanding and talk to yourself with kindness. It may not feel authentic initially, but practice is key!
Step 2: Listen to an Emotion’s Message with Curiosity
Emotions are messengers from the inner world. Numbing them, bottling them up, or distracting ourselves doesn’t make them go away. Engaging in pleasing or perfecting behaviors can get rid of some of the anxiety or guilt but makes us more vulnerable to similar situations over time. The way we show up as our best selves is to listen to the message the emotion is trying to convey. You may realize that the message is based on past fears or catastrophic predictions of the future. You may realize that it’s reminding you of something important that’s aligned with your values. You may even realize that there are a whole host of messages, because we rarely feel one emotion at a time. If so, identify the one that’s causing you the most angst and begin with that. You can address the others in sequence if you need to.
Practice: Create distance from your emotion and listen to the message it’s trying to convey. Say: “I see you, Shame. How can I help you?”
Step 3: Decide on the Right Action
Now that you’ve navigated the emotion(s) with compassion and curiosity, you’re ready to decide on the right thing to do. Unlike action that’s underpinned by fear or shame, conscious action is pro-social by nature because it’s aligned with your values and leads to feelings of goodness and mastery, both essential for authentic self-worth. You may realize that you can safely let go of the thought and move on. You may realize that you need to meet the other person to clarify what you said—or to apologize. You may realize that it wasn’t as bad as you imagined, but you’ll practice important conversations so your delivery is more impactful in the future. Or you may realize that the conversation that you’ve been avoiding is harming you or your relationship and that you need to set up a time and place to have it soon.
Practice: Ask yourself, “What would the best version of me do right now?” Check in with yourself whether the action is aligned with who you want to be. And then act on it!
Next time you regret something you said, or didn’t get to say, listen to the tantrums of fear or shame with compassion and curiosity, but act with the silent wisdom of the loving parent who lives within you.