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Practising regret

Practising regret

This week Moya Sarner wrote an interesting article about regret and the toll that it can take on mental health. I recently came across a Buddhist ritual around regret which I’ve been adapting in my own life. This is part of my project on how meditative and contemplative practices can be adapted to include a sense of how our experiences are embedded in wider cultural messages and social structures. I thought I’d write a post on why regretting might be helpful in this way, and the practice I’ve been using to structure my regret.

Why regret?

Intersectional feminism and other social justice movements remind us that we simply can’t help feeling and acting in racist, misogynist, classist, homo/bi/transphobic, ableist, etc. ways because we live in a society that is structurally racist, misogynist, and so on. Relatedly we’re never going to behave in a perfectly consensual way in a culture which is steeped in non-consent, based as it is on some lives, bodies, and forms of labour being valued far more highly than others: a system we’re all implicated in and can’t escape. Also – as Sarner’s article highlights with the example of a man who experienced extreme poverty going on to impoverish his own kids in a different way – we all operate under intergenerational trauma. The trauma of unjust and non-consensual culture – and the ways of treating people that engenders – has been unwittingly passed on to us and shapes our own ways of doing things, in ways that become habitual for us.

This is why the ideal of having no regrets isn’t going to work. Individualistic culture gives us the message that we – as individuals – could and should be able to choose to be good, nice, safe people who never do any harm and therefore need have no regrets, but this would be impossible. Indeed, the idea that we – as individuals – are good, nice, and safe, and are only capable of helping – never hurting – others, is one of the most dangerous ideas around. It prevents us from seeing these systems and structures of injustice and how they operate through all of us all the time. It leads to us denying and minimising the harm that we do in ways that hurt those we’ve already hurt all the more.

So it’s vital to regret on a political level: to notice where we’ve been implicated in harm, to take responsibility for the impact of our actions – however unintentional – and to keep asking the question of how we can collectively work to do things differently.

An Alternative to Blame and Shame

As Sarner suggests, regret is also vital on a personal level. Embracing the inevitability of regret – and finding ways to practise regret – offers an alternative to blame or shame, which are our go-to responses. When our actions have harmed others we either focus all our energy on blaming someone or something else for it and defending ourselves because we must be seen as a good person (by ourselves and by others). Or we go the other way and focus on shaming ourselves: holding ourselves entirely responsible, assuming this means that we’re utterly flawed as an individual, and continuing to beat ourselves up – often for years or decades. Frequently we oscillate between the false binary of blame and shame: it must be all your fault, or all my fault. Both blame and shame operate from that individualising perspective, failing to recognise the inevitability of hurting and being hurt by each other within the toxic cultures we operate in. Neither generally results in us acting any less harmfully in future.

Shame can be just as much a defence against responsibility as blame. We can give off the message to others that they must never let us know that we’ve hurt them because we can’t cope with seeing our capacity to cause harm. This kind of fragility can mean that those who are marginalised, oppressed, or harmed continually have to do the emotional labour of protecting those who have done the harm from this knowledge, shoring up their belief that they are really good people.

The culture of individualising – and of binary blame and shame – exacerbates the tendency to operate in this way. When people recognise a bad situation, the answer is often to search for one individual to hold responsible and to publicly blame, shame, and exclude, rather than to looking for the problems in the wider system and culture that enabled these dynamics. Fear of being identified and rejected in this way results in other people feeling even less able to be honest with themselves and others about their harmful actions. But as authors like Brené Brown have pointed out, we’re all going to mess up, we’re all going to get it wrong, and we’re all going to fail. Trying to avoid doing so limits our creativity, our potential, and our relationships with others. These things are inevitable and we need to cultivate a culture where it’s possible to bear this truth, and to be open about our mess, mistakes and failures.

Regret practice

Given the powerful forces pulling us to deny our harmful actions and/or to disappear into shame, how might we find another way with regret? I’m increasingly thinking that – given that these problems are always systemic, structural, and cultural – if we are to shift them then we need systems of support, structures, and micro-cultures in order to we do things differently. We can’t just rely on some kind of willpower or changing ourselves as an individual, as some forms of self-help, therapy, and mindfulness suggest.

I was re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are and was struck by a ceremony she describes which is done in some Buddhist monasteries on the days of the new and full moons. I like the idea of rituals that mark specific times, like the changing seasons, or the phases of the moon. It seems like a way of connecting back to the world around us, as well as being a helpful reminder to reflect on certain things regularly: providing a structure. While I haven’t done this practice with others yet, it certainly has scope as a collective activity, and it’s possible to feel connected to others who may be doing the same – or similar practices – at the same time.

Regret ritual

The four stages of the ritual are:

  • Regret – noticing what we do and putting it down
  • Refraining – not doing your usual habit
  • Remedial action – doing some practice to support us to do things differently
  • Resolution – gently and openly committing to doing things differently

I imagine that I’ll adapt these stages differently each time I do the practice, but these are the kinds of things I’ve been playing with so far. Generally I’m taking an hour or so on the evening of the new and full moons to do this. First I set myself up with everything I need, creating a space for the ritual, maybe lighting a candle and taking a few breaths to ground myself. Then I do something like the following.

Regret

I’ve found it helpful to start by journaling about the things I regret – either everything that occurs to me or focusing on a particular theme. If you did the practice with other people you could start by telling each other these things. In between rituals you could keep a note on your phone of things that occur to you to reflect on, so you already have a list. It’s all about gently noticing the habits of thinking or behaving that we fall into which hurt ourselves, others, and the wider world. The first time I did this practice, I noticed that writing things down didn’t connect me enough with the feelings, so I also sat quietly for a while, remembered the events I regretted, and let myself feel my response in my body.

Refraining

Instead of launching into acting, we start by refraining. It’s a bit like the idea in medicine ‘first do no harm’. Often when we feel bad about something we’ve done we immediately rush to rectify it, or to get forgiveness from the person we’ve harmed, often regardless of whether that would be the best thing for them. This can end up requiring others to do even more emotional labour, or even retraumatising them. When harm has happened perhaps instead we can slow right down and refrain from acting until we can see the situation clearly, and know that we’re acting out of care for the others involved rather than trying to make ourself feel better. It can also be useful to reflect on why you did whatever you did: was there something you wanted from acting that way which you could notice if it came up again and refrain from? In the practice this phase might involve slowing down to really notice where we’re at with what happened and what we feel capable of for now.

Remedial action

This might be a practice that supports you now in doing things differently, like a compassion meditation, or putting yourself in the shoes of the other person or people involved. It could be planning what you might do to support you doing things differently in future: for example planning to explain the situation to trusted friends and get support in what you do next; or committing to learn more about an area where you’ve messed up because you didn’t know enough about it; or planning to do something you know to be helpful in a different area. Something that I’ve found supportive at this phase is to remember times in the past when I’ve felt similar confusion, guilt, shame, or whatever, and to imagine sending support back to those versions of me, as well as to other people who I know – or don’t know – who may be caught up in similarly complex situations.

Resolution

I found journaling helpful at this stage again to write down some resolutions, and to try to synthesise it into a couple of key points that I wanted to remember until the next ritual. You could also make something visual to symbolise what you want to refrain from and what you want to resolve to do differently. It could be creating drawings, or choosing objects like stones, buttons, or tarot cards that symbolise those things, which you leave somewhere you can see them every day. You could move your body in some way to represent what you want to refrain from and resolve: maybe some particular music or song to represent each one. Whatever works for you.

At the end you could take some more breaths, blow out the candle, or do some other grounding practice to mark the end of the ritual, perhaps inviting yourself to feel gratitude for the people, practices, and ideas that support you.

Cultivating the practice

I’m thinking that it might be useful, each time, to check out my notes from the previous time/s, in order to remind myself of my habits and resolutions. The ways we cause harm can be extremely hard to face so – as well as going gently and kindly with ourselves and remembering the wider situation we’re all operating within which makes this so difficult – it might be helpful to do this practice regularly in a way that builds over time: maybe not looking at everything all at once in a way that would just overwhelm us and prevent us from wanting to look at it again. Teachers, therapists, or supportive groups could be helpful if we get into territory that feels too hard to bear alone.

Find out more

I’ve written elsewhere about how it’s useful to sit with our role on all sides of the drama triangle (victim, persecutor, and rescuer) personally and politically, as well as how it can be helpful to connect with both our privilege and oppression. My social mindfulness zine also covers this in detail, and staying with feelings includes practices for how to stay with the emotions it brings up.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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