How do you accept the things you cannot change, exactly?
September 2, 2018 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Exactly how do you accept past decisions you regret?

I am in the midst of a deep spiral of rumination about one specific decision I made in my life now several YEARS ago, which would seem minor to most (I can see this objectively) but which I can't get over. I made a stupid decision, and it's something I have to live with, and though there are positive and negatives to the decision, I would give years of my life for a time machine.

I spend lots of time searching for information online about this decision, asking other people about it, reading about it, thinking in minute detail everything I would have done differently, cursing the "but fors" that led me to the decision (if I hadn't talked to X, if Y had told me what he thought, if I hadn't read Z advice online.) It really has consumed my life.

Objectively I know this is crazy. I have exhausted my loved ones talking about it (another regret) and am trying really hard just to accept it, not think about it, and move on with what should be a full life with lots of people who love me and whom I love back.

I really like the AA prayer about accepting the things we cannot change. But I don't know exactly how to do this. I ruminate all the time about it. I have seen a therapist, who gave me some CBT techniques, but again, I am good at identifying the distortions, but not with that feeling of dread of "I really screwed this all up." I suppose I should try medication, though in my head, I think, "medication will not fix this bad decision."

In other words, if you know that objectively acceptance is good, how do you implement this in your life/thinking patterns?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I kind of pause, hold the thought in my head and acknowledge that it's come up and I am feeling some shitty feelings, and then say to myself "that was then, this is now, and I'm going to think about something else now." And I try and move on with my day. My experience is that the compulsion, with the odd extinction burst*, will fade over time.

* totally look up extinction bursts, they can help you contextualise the odd resurgence as a simple brain tic and not a failure or reason to worry.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:36 AM on September 2, 2018 [10 favorites]

I do this prayer/affirmation: I forgive myself for my bad decisions. I'll do better next time. I have faith that I and all people can do better and be better. Even if I fuck up.
posted by gt2 at 12:39 AM on September 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

One thing that counseling did for me was teach me how to reframe my story. While I cannot change what has happened in the past, I can change how I view its impact on my life.

Option A: I did this stupid thing in the past. That probably means that I'm stupid and everything about that time in my life was stupid. I'm still thinking about it now and it gives me anxiety.

Option B (reframing): So, there was this thing that happened. It was part of my journey and that's okay. Having experienced this thing makes it easier for me to empathize with others who are also struggling. I've moved forward since then and continue to grow.

Whenever old, negative thoughts crop up, I imagine that I am a large, strong rock in the middle of a surging river. The thoughts are swirling by, but, instead of stopping them, I allow them to float by me - acknowledging them and then letting them drift by. I am strong and steady, my story is my own.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 12:49 AM on September 2, 2018 [22 favorites]

I sympathize; that happens to me many times every day. I usually shake my head, say a curse like, "F#@¢ you," or "Screw that $#1+," and then do something that requires using my brain power on something else.

For some specific things, I will change the message. "You were just a dumb kid!" or "YOU didn't know!" can help where they're true.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:35 AM on September 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Forgiving ourselves for past mistakes seems like the kind of thing that ought to be easy. After all, the idea that making decisions is somehow a different kind of activity from walking or breathing is obviously not correct. Making decisions does not and cannot change things. All it can ever do is change our reasonable expectations about how things are likely to work out.

Only what will happen, will happen, and we cannot actually know what really will happen until it has, at which point it's too late to do anything about it except react to it. We don't get a do-over. We don't get to respawn and retry. Life is simply not something we can train up to perform as a speedrun. That's just not how this works, whether we like it or not; and most of us don't like it, even after we've long since learned to accept it as true.

If we care so much about establishing a causal narrative as to consider some decision in the past to be the cause of some kind of misery in our present, we're logically compelled to inquire as to the causes of that decision, and we're forced to conclude that even if we don't and perhaps can't know what those causes are, they must have existed; from which it follows that the decision we did make was the only one we ever could have made.

Alternatives and choices and possibilities are all about the future, but right at the cutting edge of reality where the future becomes the present and the decisions actually happen, there are no alternatives or choices or possibilities left any more; there is only what we actually do. And whether it's walking or breathing or choosing, what we do quickly becomes what we did, and that's just how things were and having those things in our past is just how things are.

Regrets are useful only to the extent that we can translate them into policy: I should have done X in circumstance Y can simply be translated to I will do X if circumstance Y recurs, at which point the strength of the regret automatically translates itself into the strength of the motivation to apply that policy when its time comes, and all is well.

But of course you know all of this already, and yet the existence of this decision in your past continues to make you miserable with nagging questions about coulda shoulda woulda didn't. Why?

Your misery is ongoing because you're trying to solve the wrong problem. Your problem is not the bad decision, or the knock-on effects it might or might not have had upon your life, or how things would have turned out if you'd decided something different, or any of that.

Your problem is rumination itself, rather than whatever it is that the rumination is about.

You will get far better results from paying more attention to finding process-oriented solutions to unproductive rumination than from trying to find ways to come to terms with this specific past incident.
posted by flabdablet at 2:47 AM on September 2, 2018 [13 favorites]

The only way I've been able to at least partially deal with bad decisions of the past is to try and find some positives out of the experience. Perhaps something you learned that made future decisions less problematic?
posted by ebear at 3:11 AM on September 2, 2018

I preach to 300-500 people each Sunday (I'm about do to so today in about an hour). Each time, I do, I conclude with the same silent prayer: "Accept the good, forgive me for the bad, in all things be glorified." And then I vow to let it go.

Then, when my brain wants to pick apart every little thing I did and said for the rest of this afternoon, I will run through this little flowchart:

1. Did you pray the prayer?
2. Did you learn from anything you could have done better?
3. Is anything you think or do going to change the past?
4. Then stop thinking about it.

I call it the "Back to the Future Rule of Regret." Be careful: if you go back in time and change one thing, and soon Biff is running the world.

Another example from my life: For a while, I had deep regrets over "wasting" two years of my life in a crushing relationship that ended in heartbreak. Yet, that relationship did one great thing: it forced me to move to a state where I reconnected with an old college friend who has been my wife now for 20 years.

Perhaps something good could still come out of the thing you regret, and it just has not happened yet? Or, on preview, what ebear said. Good luck!
posted by 4ster at 4:22 AM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've been grappling with my own regrets, and one thing that I've found in my situation is that I need to grieve the loss of an alternate life that I'll never have. Its the life that could have been had the mistake not been made.

I also recently heard on a podcast (Dear Sugar) that guilt surrounding a death is a way of denying the death because you can't let it go. Thus one possible solution is to acknowledge the death, the grief, and any lingering guilt. And the grief needs to be stepped into and felt in its fullest form, after which it will gradually subside.

In short ,acceptance will be painful and itll take time, but give space to the concomitant emotions.
posted by iusedhername at 4:26 AM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

I am surprised that I have (mostly) accomplished this (which I recognise now due to the self-reflection your question caused). I think... i think I did it by recognising the futility of wishing for a different past - whether it was things people did to me, unkind things I did to other people or poor decisions I made (which have lifelong impacts on loved ones - like the impact of staying with the ratbag I married had on my kids).

I can't change the past. Despite my many flaws, I have come to the conclusion that I did the best I could with the resources I had. This was also how I came to terms with my parents' significant flaws, they did the best they could with the resources they had (and the influences too - like poverty, misogyny, undiagnosed mental illness). But this conclusion came after my very clear awareness that I can't change the past, however much I want to (regret). If I can't fix it, I'm adding to my difficulty in navigating the present by hating on myself or other people. I think what happened was a sort of rubber band on the wrist training - when a memory came up, I would broken-record myself with the thought that I did the best I could etc, I considered my earlier self with compassion and empathised with that person. I wanted to let that younger woman/child know that it wasn't a terrible thing that I had done, and with the background and circumstances, I made it through and got better at decisions and actions.

That said, I still make random painful noises at unexpected memories of when I did shitty things, I still occasionally bore good listeners with the nasty things that happened to me. And that's okay, I don't aim to be completely perfect anymore (even though some of my design work is unnecessarily precise to 1000th of a cm.

Medication helped me with a lot of things, but leaving regrets behind (mostly) were multiple acts of rationality (that you are already experiencing). It took me about 20 years to feel like I could reasonably honestly say "no regrets". You're on the way, keep doing what you're doing and banish tine travel in either direction.
posted by b33j at 4:52 AM on September 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

When thinking about past things I sometimes wish had gone differently, or that I'd done differently, I always try to change the channel to my life now. I'm pretty happy with my life right now, in general - so in spite of any regrets I may have, there are many things I have present in my life right now that I absolutely wouldn't give up.

Like - if I'd continued on to a PhD as I'd originally planned, instead of moving closer to my aging parents in case they needed me (spoiler: they stubbornly lived another 20 or so healthy years...) - it's entirely likely that I wouldn't even know the most important people in my life right now. Maybe I'd have Dr. in front of my name and maybe I'd have made a big impact in my field and maybe I'd have visited exotic locations... but I probably wouldn't have my family, THIS family, and that is unacceptable.

Alternately, there are things in my life right now that I find incredibly anxiety-inducing (hello, student debt!) that I could have easily avoided, and my life might be much the same as it is right now. But again, I try to think of my bad decisions as the price I paid for the good stuff in my life. Nobody gets anything for free.
posted by invincible summer at 5:09 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel you! I was drowning in these types of thoughts as well. My approach was to treat the intrusive thoughts like breaking a bad habit.

This is gonna sound so weird but I have had success breaking the shame spiral by interrupting the compulsive thought with another viscerally powerful thought. Over my life there have been 2 or 3 phenomenally disgusting (accidental of course) run-ins with dog poo or phlegm. I almost gag just thinking about. These encounters were so gross that the memories are as fresh as the days they happened.

It takes no effort, reasoning or will power to conjure the memory and it can stop me dead in my tracks. The revulsion is stronger than the shame. This has been a life-changing tactic for me. So I guess it is like aversion therapy?

The idea came from a short article I read about shame. the author said something like "Shame is like dog poo. You don't let anyone put it on you & you don't put it on someone else. If you get some on yourself you wash it off immediately".

It may not be a whole solution but could be a good tool in the fight.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 5:13 AM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

Regret can be a powerful motivator for positive change. Guilt and shame on the other hand can be useless and even self destructive if we continue to beat ourselves up with it. The difference is that regret focuses on the action being stupid, whereas guilt and shame make us think that we are a stupid person (which is a lie). We may not be able to change the past, but we can resolve not to repeat the regrettable decision and change whatever issues within ourselves that caused us to make it in the first place. It's very, very powerful (and healing) to be able to look back on these things and know that you are not that person any more.
posted by jazzbaby at 6:00 AM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

The way I view this is that you either accept and learn from past decisions or you don't. If you don't, what have you gained from not accepting? Probably nothing or even less than nothing, negative. What would you gain from accepting? Upside on your future. Clear headspace. Probably never make that same mistake again.

Do you know, really KNOW, what would have happened if you had taken the other path? No. You can tell yourself what you think would have happened, but unless it is a binary choice where both options have been revealed like Door #1 and Door #3 on Let's Make A Deal, you really don't know. If you don't really know then speculating how good the missed choice might have been is really self sabotage. You are assuming the worst about yourself. Then, you figure out not how to stop thinking about The Decision, but figure out why you are self sabotaging. Or, if you do not want to do that, frame the lost choice differently. It sounds as if you are framing it in its best light, but what if you speculated about its worst light?

"If I had made that decision I would have gotten a free car which means I could have accepted that job which means I would be financially secure and happy today." or "If I had gotten that free car, it could have gotten me into a crash and I would have been in the hospital or worse, killed." I bet you would regret the decision less if you learned to frame the missed opportunity in its worst light.

Third, ruminate all you want about The Decision, but make sure you still lead your current life to the fullest. Good living is the best revenge.
posted by AugustWest at 6:27 AM on September 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sometimes I try to find examples of people who did the same thing so I can see how they turned out. Like, if it were bankruptcy, I would find people who had gone through it so I could see what they went through and hear what insights they may have had. Having compassion for other people can make me have compassion for myself more easily.

While I am not in AA, reading stuff about the fourth step and working with a therapist was also really helpful.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:30 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I made a bad decision 10 years ago. Though I still think about it, what really helped was accepting that the bad stuff that happened was because of my choices, not just some random things. I went to a seminar years ago in acceptance, and after that I started to forgive.

So, I accept that I made a choice that in hindsight was wrong. At the time though, I didn’t know that and made the best decision I could.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 8:30 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I start thinking that way, I take a lot of comfort in this parable. After all, who really knows what's good or bad ?
posted by rpfields at 9:14 AM on September 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

For me stuff like this is a feature of my depression, and part of dealing with it. What I do is basically give myself a little time to acknowledge that I fucked up and that dealing with it sucks, but as of now I can't travel back in time and change things, I can only change the future and spending that future beating myself up isn't productive.

Then I think about things in the future that I want to do, and make plans around that, and I do something practical to make things a little better now.

And if that's really not letting me move on, I make art about it.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:34 AM on September 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Everyone else's information is very wise, and I apply some of those principles myself regularly.

But another thing I do, when I feel overwhelmed by the bad decisions I've made in the past and the consequences of dealing with them, is to imagine that I'm some kind of alien/traveling spirit who has been magically transported into the body of Pretentious Illiterate, and who has literally just arrived to serve as, like, a fixer/consultant. I look around at my situation and I'm like, yup, whoever used to be inhabiting this body really got herself into a pickle! Guess it's time to roll up my sleeves and get to work fixing things up!

I mean, in a way, it's not *untrue.* If the mistake you made, and the consequences of that mistake, are as
dramatic as you say, then it changed you! You are not that person anymore! Beating up your past self, the person who, lacking your current wisdom, made a choice that you would never make, is like wasting your time yelling at an imaginary friend... or in this case, enemy. What matters is your life here, now.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:11 AM on September 2, 2018 [10 favorites]

Do you like the person you are today? Because who you are today is a direct result of your prior choices. You can not reject your past without rejecting who you are now.

If you don’t like yourself I would suggest working on that, perhaps starting with the qualities you believe you would have if you had gone the other direction. There are always multiple paths to becoming the person you want to be and if you do become that person there is nothing left to regret.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I assume you have already made amends to the extent possible if this decision hurt other people. And sometimes I think it helps to really get to the bottom of what you did to why you did it; sometimes shame goes away when I learn the deeper lesson it has, or identify and maybe even dispute the underlying assumption that is causing so much pain (“I let everyone down!” Well, did I? I worked super hard and yeah, things went wrong but only due to some external thing nobody could have foreseen.)

Beyond that, I’d consider this an intrusive thought. What works for me is to find an answer to it that rings true, maybe like “I did the best I could at the time” or “thinking about it is keeping me from making my best decisions now,” or “that decision also brought me the good things that are in my life today,” or any thought that gives you even a second of relief. Then, every time you think the thought, think that new thought. Over time, your brain makes a new shortcut between the two, so that you go almost seamlessly to “I just need to make the best decisions I can now” or “that time, well, I did the best I could.”
posted by salvia at 10:22 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Meditation can help with this. My experience is by mediating, I've gotten the skills to be better at holding myself at a distance from an intrusive thought, and letting it go. It doesn't stop intrusive thoughts but it makes them less painful.

Vigorous cardio is also really useful for me when I'm trying to interrupt a ruminative thought pattern. If you're physically up for it: go for a run where you walk for a few minutes and then sprint as hard as you can for 30 seconds, repeat. Or privately, do something fun and intentionally silly, like put on a song you like and dance to it in a goofy way.

I've not had as much benefit with other cognitive/CBT techniques, (like you say, just recognizing that a thought is irrational often isn't really enough to keep it from being painful) but using breathing, exercise, meditation, yoga have been really effective over time.
posted by ProtoStar at 10:35 AM on September 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Meditation and a little thought game I like to play called “What would you tell someone you love if they did this?”

I envision a person I care deeply for telling me the same thing I am berating myself for and walk through how I’d respond to them.

Then I tell myself that very same thing. Out loud if needed.
posted by hilaryjade at 6:51 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I made a bad decision in my past. I knew it might be a bad decision, but I went ahead anyway. And it all disastered out in slow mo and now I know I was right to figure it might be a very bad idea. But I also know if I had not made the decision I would have regretted it, and gone through life wishing I had done that thing.

So you might want to consider why you made that decision and who you were then, and what you thought would happen, or could happen and what you didn't know could happen. Chances are, without hindsight, it was not such a bad decision. But the uncontrollable factors turned it into a bad decision. With the information you had at the time, the situation might plausibly have gone somehow else. And the situation you were in at the time you made the decision my now be so far in the past that you don't remember them. You may be finding it hard to empathize with your past self. Work on building that empathy.

One thing you can do is write the good things that came out of your decision. Since the decision you have learned a lot and developed a lot. Some of what you learned and some of the positive developments could not have happened without the experience. This is not to say it was good, but that you likely can find some stuff to build on from the results of the bad decision.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:13 PM on September 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have several situations I ruminate on in my life. What I have found helpful is to talk about the parts you feel you can with a person you can trust. If you feel you cannot do this, try journaling. Burn it afterwards if you must. The best thing is to accept your decision and have empathy for others that may have experienced something similar. I really liked WaspEnterprises “option B” answer...
posted by oklahomie at 10:26 PM on September 2, 2018

Objectively I know this is crazy.

No, it's not crazy. It's something mature people struggle with. In fact, it's key to the process of maturing. Watch The Big Kahuna if you haven't. (Written by Roger Rueff.) It's not the world's flashiest movie, but it's incredibly well written and something I often cite when discussing regret because Rueff has some truly memorable, insightful lines that I think can help a person puzzle through this stuff. It helped me.

I'm not a psychologist so take this with a grain of salt, but I don't think what you're describing is regret. You said, "I can't get over [this decision]." That's not regret. It's grief or denial or something different, and it's on the way toward regret. When you hit regret, you'll be over the decision because regret is bigger than the particular decision. When Hemingway wrote, "Afterward many are stronger at the broken places," that afterward is regret. It takes a journey. The bone isn't broken and then just magically, regret. Keep walking.
posted by cribcage at 11:23 PM on September 2, 2018

Not sure if you are coming from a Judeo-Christian background with the concomitant guilt, but I really benefited from reading How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 5:07 AM on September 3, 2018

Repetitive thoughts can be OCD.
posted by agregoli at 12:04 PM on September 4, 2018

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