Why did I do that?
November 19, 2005 7:35 PM   Subscribe

How do you not regret?

I have a serious problem with not being able to forgive myself. The cycle that I find myself in goes something like this:

1. do something
2. regret it
3. struggle with it for days or weeks.
4. start to feel better
5. see #1

It can be terribly crushing, especially because it prevents me from being truely happy. I'll do something envigorating that makes me happy for a moment (see a good film, have a good conversation), but then my brain brings me back down to earth by saying "don't get too happy, remember that stupid thing you did," and then suddenly I'm bummed again. I never fully get over every stupid (or percieved stupid) thing I've done.

Some recent examples of things I regret, for reference:
1. not inviting so-and-so to my wedding
2. telling a story in mixed company that doesn't get the reaction I want
3. having too much to drink at a concert and acting obnoxious

Sometimes things involve alcohol (#3) but not always.

Is this depression? I know therapy at this point is a no-brainer, but I'm hoping for some advice in the short term about how to forgive myself. I'm certain this feeling has something to do with a deep need to be liked and accepted. Why can't I let this stuff go?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
you are too proud my friend
too proud!

feeling shitty is part of being human. loose your pride. these regrets are nothing compared to the ones that will come

that said, i learned this from my dog--get exercised over something, then be momentarily distracted only to completely forgot the prior exercise

i hope this is of some use. and for what it's worth, i dont think it's depression. learn to be wrong, the rest follows
posted by subatomiczoo at 7:48 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think you just need to come to the realization that most of it doesn't matter. Just say to yourself: "If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I'll have lived a happy life."

Whether you'll need therapy to come to this realization is a different question.
posted by Krrrlson at 7:57 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Has this always been the case? Do you remember a time when you didn't feel like this.

IMHO it sounds like mild depression and I have had a similar experience.
posted by xoe26 at 7:58 PM on November 19, 2005

Watch Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, and pay attention to the scene at the end.
posted by furtive at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was like you, then I learned the two most powerful words in the world: "Fuck It".
posted by shanevsevil at 8:09 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

No one is perfect, completely in spite of the fact that they may project that they never screw up and that they have limitless confidence. I used to beat myself up over shit but I've since decided that it's not worth it.

Basically, and I'm totally stealing this from David Foster Wallace, because the man is far more eloquent than I am -- you have to teach yourself to think, and by that I mean that you have to teach yourself to exercise control over what and how you think, and what you get out of what you experience, good or bad. Generally speaking (unless you've a mental disorder, which is something else altogether) what you dwell upon is up to you.

There is no magic pill that will make you stop regretting things. I can tell you that realizing I had people who loved me no matter how much of an ass I made of myself went a long way to helping me live "in the moment," but that would be bullshit. That was just a part of the puzzle. It's not as if suddenly, one day, I had friends. They'd always been there and I'd just been to wrapped up in making myself miserable that I'd missed out on the "love me no matter what" part.

All you can do is do as well as you can at being the person you want to be. If that person is totally perfect, I'm sorry -- you're screwed because none of us are perfect. But you can be a good person according to your rules, and when you mess up, learn from it and move on. But you have to choose to do that; you have to choose to experience your fuck-ups as a life lesson and not as a recurring nightmare of self-flagellation.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:10 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Letting go is tough. It's worse when people won't let you let it go — choose the people around you carefully.
posted by Rothko at 8:13 PM on November 19, 2005

Could well be depression and I often find myself in a similar boat. Sometimes I'm paralysed with embarrassment on reminding myself of some stupid thing I said or did 20 years ago! I remind myself that nothing can be done about [whatever I'm beating myself up over] except to learn from the experience, and that probably nobody else even remembers or cares about it. The past is the past and all I can do is try not to be a dick in the future.
I have moderate success with this, and with concentration and practice I find that I now often remember to think through this stuff and can usually break up a funk of self-loathing in short order.
posted by nowonmai at 8:15 PM on November 19, 2005

Part of this comes with experience and getting older, I think, but it helps to realize that you're not that important.

I don't mean that rudely. I just mean that whichever of your actions you can't forget -- other people have already forgotten. No one is paying that much attention to you.

That weird comment your friend made last night? You've probably already written it off as his being drunk, or in a weird mood. Most of your friends have probably also done the same for your weird behavior.
posted by occhiblu at 8:21 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

My wife said something to me once on this topic that really made a lot of sense. She said most people are so obsessed with themselves they usually don't remember/care about what you do or say for more than a minute or two anyway.
posted by captainscared at 8:22 PM on November 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

How do you not regret?

It's like losing weight: By making various changes in your lifestyle/behavior. You will make mistakes and "fall off the wagon". That's fine. The point is to keep trying and eventually you'll "retrain" your mind.

You MAY need to visit a shrink to help figure specific mental excercies to do, or to spot the ongoing cycle and what to do at each step, but essentially, you just need to reprogram yourself. Have patience and keep plodding along to defined goals and you'll get there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:24 PM on November 19, 2005

I've had this problem for most of my life. (Still do, to an extent, but it's under control.) I'd do half-serious Google searches trying to figure out how to be able to forgive myself because I honestly just did not know how to do it. I have a deep sense of responsibility, twinned with a deep sense of guilt, and a set of impossibly high standards for myself. Every time I screwed up it was like another wound added to the collection; I felt all the other mistakes again as if they were new on top of the fresh one.

I guess the thing that made me stop, or at least reduce the whole hanging myself on the cross thing, was seeing how upset it made my girlfriend to watch me hurt myself. That kind of shifted my perspective a little. I still feel hyper-responsible, but... it's different, somehow. I don't feel like I want to die every time I make anything more than a small mistake anymore.

I don't know how helpful this answer is to you, but that's how it worked for me. Unfortunately, I needed an external catalyst to figure it out; I probably would've been spared a lot of pain if I had been able to figure it out on my own beforehand. But that's just how it worked out, and I'm thankful for that much. I think something like this can definitely feed off of and feed depression in a vicious cycle, but it can also hang around for a while even after the depression lifts, like it did for me. It's more of a bad mental habit than a symptom of a clinical disorder, IMO (though as with most psychological disorders, the lines are blurry.)
posted by Kosh at 8:28 PM on November 19, 2005

Do stuff all the time. I am like that too, but not so much when I keep my mind entertained with new things. And I think subatomiczoo is right too.
posted by springload at 8:29 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

A guy I know says, "I stopped obsessing so much about what people thought of me when I realized how seldom they did." Along those lines, I can tell you that I've had friends say to me, "Did I look/act/say something stupid??" after an incident that was eating them alive, and I (who was present during the incident in question) either didn't think it was a big deal or didn't even remember it happened!

Sounds like you might have a touch of social anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy--available on a sliding scale, usually, at a major university near you--can work wonders in changing those automatic thought patterns. You've worn a groove in your mind with those patterns and you need help getting (and staying) out of it the next time you do something socially gauche.
posted by availablelight at 8:32 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I would say, too, that I used to obsess like this. As availablelight points out, my major shifting point was simply realizing time and time again that no one else (or at least not the people I liked) even noticed my "major gaffes." Or, if they noticed, still liked me anyway.
posted by occhiblu at 8:39 PM on November 19, 2005

Regret, like fear, is a negative experience as an emotion but can have a positive effect. Perhaps you'll consider invitation lists more carefully in the future, and drink less in mixed company?

I also have this strong "OMG I can't believe I did that" reflex, and the best I've been able to do with it over the years is:

1) If I screw up, I try to really learn the lesson. A true lesson is usually not something like "you're a stupid idiot" but rather something more practical like "switch to water after 2 drinks." If you can be honest with yourself and EMBRACE the lesson, take it to heart, then the guilt/shame/regret starts to fade. Once I have that "aha!" moment over where I actually went wrong, my brain tends to go easier on me, because at least I feel I've learned how to avoid the same mistake in the future. Punishing yourself endlessly does *not* ensure future improvement.

2) Keep my general self-esteem up. If you know yourself and you know your strengths and you know what you're in this world to do, it's easier not to sweat small mistakes. We all make them. Work on yourself. Focus on building out your strengths. Do what makes you feel good about yourself. Accomplish something you can be proud of. Keep your ship seaworthy in general and a few drops of rain won't sink you.

3) Accept that not everyone is going to like you, that you won't be good at everything, that you are not always at your best, and be okay with the fact that sometimes you screw up, sometimes you lose, some fish get away. It's okay.
posted by scarabic at 8:50 PM on November 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

I notice there's a lot of voices here giving you good advice about coping with the feelings -- seeing a counselor, learning cognitive therapy, accepting imperfection, etc. Those avenues are definitely worth exploring, and having walked down this road myself, I'd recommend going through them. They all can and do help people. But it's possible you should add one more option: learning to get better at living the life you want to live and closer to being the person you want to be.

Because being medicated, learning cognitive therapy, and learning to live with imperfection, even if necessary in your case, may not create the real esteem that comes from being able to look at yourself and, along with the inevitable screw-ups everybody makes, point to some things you've done that you're proud of.

They don't have to be big. It doesn't have to be acheiving everything you've ever dreamed of. And it almost never happens overnight. But it will help to gradually develop the knowledge that you've put such resources as you've got into doing things you think were worthwhile, that your life is directed towards some purposes you've decided on.

Most of us don't start off really good at that, for whatever reason, even with high expectations. We have to learn a lot by making bad choices, watching the consequences, and regretting them. It sounds like you've done that part. :) Welcome to the rest of humanity. Now it's time to come to grips with managing that emotion -- maybe even through therapy or other kinds of help from others -- and learn from your mistakes a bit at a time, and do better gradually, too.

Finally, a side note -- along with the other stuff, don't neglect the things available through a spiritual practice. If faith in a personal God is impossible for you, try a meditative practice, maybe even one with a corresponding physical discipline (ie, yoga or a martial art). Religion has been dealing with the problem of confronting the imperfect nature of human beings for thousands of years, and though this aspect of it is culturally quieter, it has in fact produced some richer things than plastic Jesus Christianity and the desire to blow people up.
posted by namespan at 9:08 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Based on your three examples, another aspect that makes you feel the regret is not having the difficult conversations you need to have. Talk to the people who you think are offended/slighted and own your part of the situation. It weighs on your mind because you haven't dealt with it.

It took me a long time to figure this out and almost as long to learn how to approach those difficult conversations. Once I did, I no longer had those heavy feelings of regret. Look up the book Difficult Conversations if you're interested.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:49 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I regret very few things in my past because even the really, REALLY bad stuff taught me something. If the thing in my past was a bad decision, I try to remind myself that, given the information I had at the time, it was the best decision I could make. We all realize that hindsight is 20/20, so it's easy to look back and wonder what in the world we were thinking/doing. I still struggle with it occasionally on really big issues, and I found that it helped to forgive myself.
posted by Serena at 10:27 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a hard time forgiving myself as well. Ive found, that as long as i constantly try to improve myself i feel ok. If I am improving myself, and can tell myself that whatever I did was in the past, and while I should not have done it, I cannot change the past. The only thing I can do is to look ahead, and try to not make the same mistake. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I take that emotion and work on improving myself.
posted by VillainousJester at 10:35 PM on November 19, 2005

Be cold and rational, because regret is irrational. You cannot change the past. The only reason we regret is to try to improve our future behavior by teaching ourselves a hard lesson; but it is a messy and inefficient method. It is far better to look at what's happened and say...

"That was wrong, but I cannot change the past, and the fact that I recognise it as wrong means I am a better person than I was before. I recognise that and accept it. In addition, feeling bad about the past event, beyond an objective sense of 'not wanting to do the same thing next time', is not at all helpful to any aspect of my being, and it is within my power to choose not to do it".
posted by Pretty_Generic at 11:53 PM on November 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Perhaps this is a bit far out, but I find the concept that, no matter how massive my mistakes or how brilliant my successes, I will still inevitably die like everyone else, to be liberating. Life is just a game, it's a learning process wherein you start from imperfection and strive for a perfection that you cannot possibly reach... you're going to make mistakes, but you are capable of accepting that fact and accepting that those mistakes are not of horrible cosmic significance - we all end up the same way.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 11:59 PM on November 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

Let me put it this way: one of my old roommates got so drunk one night he woke up at 3 am and pissed on the goddamn couch. He may think about that often, but there's no need. It's pretty funny in hindsight and I still think he's one of the brightest guys I've ever known.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you do something stupid, no one thinks about it later but you. Cringe, smile, move on. :)
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:14 AM on November 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

Perhaps "regret" is the brain's way of gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) nudging you toward the life that you want to live. An idealized self exists in the mind's eye, forever strong, bold, engaging, and uproariously funny. Real-world behavior that deviates from this ideal (however it came to exist) gets stored as regret, i.e. the rift between the ideal and the actual.

That might be a lot of hooey, but I do know this: since I've cut out certain real-world behaviors (Optimus Chyme's couch anecdote hits close to home), I have a lot fewer regrets.

Unfortunately, wisdom doesn't seem to be regret's novocaine; the good news is, people will pay good money for humiliating stories. You can always turn those crushing feelings into a profitable hobby! (Seriously. Exploiting your demons is a mighty powerful experience.)
posted by milquetoast at 3:16 AM on November 20, 2005

I've found it tremendously comforting to recall that the worst people I've known in my life have not been burdened by regret. If those who should be wracked with guilt are still out there creating chaos, then my own urge toward self-flagellation only cedes them the field.

Stay busy and keep taking risks. Try to move faster than your memories. Keep in mind that regret and its indulgence are the calling cards of death. And learn to laugh at yourself.
posted by felix betachat at 5:24 AM on November 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

If it helps at all, I still find myself cringing - physically cringing and sometimes emiting audible groans - about some stupid thing I said or did 15 or 20 years ago. This usually happens when I'm doing something where your mind wanders, like the dishes. On more recent idiocies, I find that I stop obsessing about last week's horrible gaffe when I make a new one this week. Then I obsess about that one, and so on. But what people upthread said is true: no one remembers your fuckups as well as you do.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:18 AM on November 20, 2005

scarabic has it.
posted by footnote at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2005

if you can't do anything about it, move on.
posted by k8t at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2005

Wow -- I always thought this was just me.

Great question, great thread. I struggled with this phenomenon most of my life, and would agree that there's an element of social anxiety disorder to it. For me, there was also an overabundance of conscience (probably the Catholic heritage in action) which makes me feel especially guilty about getting too drunk, being too flirty, and 'sins' like that. However, it has almost completely stopped being a problem for me since I determined to take it on and change this aspect of my personality.

The process was the one you are embarking on: realizing that dwelling on my past actions was a complete waste of time and was hurting my personal development. I began by asking others how they dealt with regret. During this period, I also checked in with people about things I thought I needed to be forgiven for - I got a couple of 'benedictions', which helped me let those things go, but more often people didn't even remember or care about the things that were weighing so heavily on me.

Observing people who seemed more functional in this area and borrowing strategies from them also hgelped. The "teaching yourself to think" idea mentioned above was the underlying philosophy -- consciously asking myself "My present way of dealing with this is unproductive. What other ways can I view this situation?". That includes giving the other ways an honest try: "What will happen if I just write this incident off and stop thinking about it?" Interestingly, I realized that I could choose to worry and ruminate over some dumb thing I did, or choose not to. And the results in my life were the same no matter which I chose, with the exception that I was happier when I could relegate the idiocy to the past and just move on.

Ultimately, I'd say the short answer this is that it can be unlearned. Work on it. You'll unravel it and be so much more able to live authentically and focus on the present. This is a fallen world; we're human; we've all got imperfections. People can see our imperfections and they love us anyway. Learn what there is to be learned, if anything, think about making different choices next time, apologize if necessary, and then mentally change the subject.
posted by Miko at 8:23 AM on November 20, 2005

....most people are so obsessed with themselves they usually don't remember/care about what you do or say for more than a minute or two anyway.

This understanding is what helped me. From time to time I've driven myself to apologize to people I felt that I had wronged in some way, some long time ago. With very few exceptions the responses were "huh? get over yourself." Now I mostly use the scarabic method of learning, self-esteem and not sweating every person and every action and I think it works better than being full of regret.
posted by jessamyn at 8:26 AM on November 20, 2005

Like Miko, my own experiences with this have been a mix of social anxiety and a religious background which made me monitor myself constantly for 'sins.' These things do not have eternal consequences, and you are often the only person who remembers your slip-ups in so much detail or care about them so much. I find that that pattern of thinking makes me focus on the past rather than the present, and then I end up repeating those mistakes rather than changing.

A few things have helped me:
1. Anti-depressants to deal with mild depression and anxiety.
2. Realising that I don't have to be perfect 100% of the time, that these most of things are normal and not unexpected.
3. Uh... ditching religion. Losing the ideas of sin and 'God as a harsh inner conscience.'

For example, the story that didn't get the reaction you expected, that happens to everyone and people are more likely to remember the story that DID go over well. I've been realising over the last few years that while I'm worried about how people are receiving me in social situations, they're focused on how I'm receiving them, not on all my little slip-ups. They assume that I know what I'm doing, just like I assume that they are confident and judging me. The more I go into conversations assuming that people are hoping that I'll like them instead of looking to critique me, the more comfortable it gets.

I think everyone can describe their friends as people with a few irritating traits but whom they love anyways. Try to learn to be as accommodating with yourself as you are with your friends.
posted by heatherann at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2005

I've always been of the mind that many people don't really make decisions. In a way, they let decisions make them, instead, and attribute their fates to luck, chance or ignorance. The best we can do is actually take responsibility for all the things we do -- all the decisions we make -- and in that, accept that those decisions were made with the most thorough thought about the most complete information available. Such thinking leads to little regret, as it brings an inherent acknowledgement of the shortcomings of thoughts and decision.
posted by VulcanMike at 11:20 AM on November 20, 2005

Everyone else's advice is probably better -- "Be easier on yourself, who cares what they think, etc., etc." and that's the kind of advice I've gotten for years. Personally, I find it really, really hard to follow and I find myself neurosing in the shower most mornings about the stupid crap I've said and done.

My coping mechanism is self-depricating humor. I make fun of my big mouth, apologize, etc. after the fact.

It's uncomfortable, sure, but that way I have to deal with the issue directly -- and 9 times out of 10 that'll get a "It's no big deal" reponse from the person you're worried about -- and the other times, at least it starts the conversation. And ultimately, it makes me more aware in a situation of the behavior I want to perpetuate and the behavior I don't. If I don't feel like apologizing to my coworkers tomorrow, I probably won't have that third beer, you know?

Of course, I'm a guilt-ridden, neurotic weirdo who probably needs yet more therapy, so YMMV.
posted by Gucky at 12:13 PM on November 20, 2005

Two things that have helped me a bit:

1. Learn to apologize. If you said something that offended, forgot an invitation, whatever, fess up. Contact the offended party and say, "Hey, what I did was bad. I'm sorry. I admit I was wrong and I apologize." Make it up to them if you can; if you broke something, pay for it. If they refuse your apology, then they're dicks and not worth worrying about any further. If you can't contact them because you don't know who they are (strangers at a party, for example) then let it go; you don't know them, they don't know you, and they've probably forgotten it.

2. Learn to accept apologies. From others, and from yourself. Do you hold a grudge against other people as long as you hold it against yourself? We all do stupid things, and it's part of being human and it provides us with so much of our great art and literature. If you did something you regret, apologize to yourself. "Hey, me. I'm sorry I wasted a year of my life following the Grateful Dead instead of getting my BA. It was dumb, but I've learned my lesson and will try to be more careful in the future." And then it's settled, and it's -over-. Forgive yourself, and move on.

Antidepressants can help you learn to "not sweat it"; sometimes crippling shame and worry stems from a sort of need to control everything, feeling responsible for everything in your environment, the feeling that if you let your guard down, let anything slide, the world will collapse somehow. With antidepressants, you sort of... stop caring so much. And stuff slides. And most of the time, nothing bad happens. Once you experience that for a while, you learn to stop flinching so much; experience has now proven that it -will- be OK, whether you worry about it or not.
posted by Rubber Soul at 1:02 PM on November 20, 2005

I've done this all my life. It's gotten a lot better in the past couple years. I can still wince over something I did five, ten, even twenty years ago as fresh as I did the day it happened (CunningLinguist described it perfectly); but I'm less likely to linger as long on past - and present - screwups now. These are my coping mechanisms:

1) Be really tired when I go to bed. That way I actually fall asleep instead of mentally churning all my fuckups for hours, lying in bed in the dark. I will sit up and read until my eyes are closing before I go to bed, and I hardly ever do the mental churn anymore, thus avoiding the opportunity for the self-flagellating to begin.

2) Confessional. (Yes, I'm a recovering Catholic, heh.) If I can talk about it and get it all out, I get over it more quickly. Whether that's a journal post, a conversation with my husband, a long chat on IRC, or a phone call - it certainly doesn't have to be talking to the person I screwed up in front of, that's good but not always feasible - if I have a way to vent my frustration with myself, then again I'm avoiding the opportunity for the mental churn.

3) I've moved a lot (not because of this bad mental habit, of course). Most of the past screwups involved people far away. They probably don't remember, so why do I need to? Everything I start new, I look at it as an opportunity to let go even more of what's gone past, and to realize people I meet now don't have any buildup over what's gone before in my life; only *I* do.

4) If I start to dwell, I actively distract myself. Otherwise I will mope and shut down. (I do the same thing when I'm angry.) I clean, make phone calls, go on a walk, immerse myself in some detailed project that doesn't allow mental room to sit and beat myself up.

5) I used to wish I'd get to not be myself someday, because I hated being myself and I hated that I wasn't good enough (as evidenced by the constant pointing out of everything I did wrong). Well, I have to live with myself. I don't get to do it over. I don't get to not be me; this is what I have to work with. So I may as well be nicer to myself. After all, I wouldn't live with another person that treated me the way I treat myself.

I attribute it to an acute sense of self-awareness and probably a good dose of the sin/repent cycle. If I feel really really bad about this, it will atone for screwing up. Well, it's sin/repent/forgive, and I kept leaving out the last part. I screw up, I feel bad.... and then I have to let it go. It's not easy to relearn the mental habit to include this, but I couldn't get aware when I felt constantly "wounded", as Kosh described it. I know I wouldn't want to NOT regret, or NOT feel the guilt, because I wouldn't learn from it if I didn't; but I've also seen I can't learn from it if I haven't gotten past the guilt either; that the forgiveness is an essential part of the steps to go on from there.
posted by Melinika at 6:31 PM on November 20, 2005

Remind yourself what a useless emotion it is, and consider that in the future you may regret that you wasted all of that time regretting things you couldn't change.
posted by ifjuly at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2005

It might help to have a ritual for putting past actions "behind you". Catholics have confession; Jews have Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement". A cute Jewish ritual is to throw pieces of bread into a lake before Yom Kippur (tashlich), each piece symbolizing a sin or a regret you have from the past year and feel you have moved on from.

You could adopt a similar ritual of your own, for instance writing all of your regrets on a piece of paper and then tearing it up or burning it. The important part is to think carefully about each one, consider how you have learned from it and won't repeat that mistake again, and only then to "release" that regret. This way, when you think about the regret again, you will remember the actions of your ritual as well as the lessons you thought about as you were doing it, and understand that you really have learned, improved, and moved on from it.

Oh, and if you regret something you did with respect to another person, you need to find that person and apologize directly to him/her, even if it seems silly. The ritual stuff only works for things that are between you and yourself, that you know are over and done with.
posted by purple_frogs at 3:18 PM on November 21, 2005

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