Regrets can be so tricky. Imagine being harmed by something that didn’t happen! Over and over again, people carry a regret around with them and it works to destroy them. Very often, the physical ailments of those I work with in seminars are manifestations of these inactionable regrets—sorrow tied to chances NOT taken, roads NOT traveled, relationships NOT pursued. If people hold their secrets tightly, imagine how hard it can be to realize they are haunted by things that didn’t even happen! The roots can grow so deep and twisted into our bodies that we hardly remember them not always being there. Dynasty, a forty-something mother of three, came to me with neck pain so severe and unpredictable she had used up her sick leave and her vacation time simply lying on her couch, unable to function. Doctors were able to label her neck problems as stress related, but she simply couldn’t find relief. In our time together, she reached deep when I asked questions about regrets and silent sorrows. She took a deep breath, a few tears fell, and Dynasty told me how raw and sad she still feels that she was not at her mother’s deathbed six years earlier. This would have been an inappropriate time to yell BINGO!, but I felt certain we had just found the answer to her neck trouble. My advice to Dynasty, who hasn’t had a recurrence of the phantom neck trouble in over eighteen months, was threefold.
First, we need to voice this kind of regret—no matter how illogical it is, no matter how much we mentally understand that we can’t change the past, no matter how over it someone else thinks we should be. Speaking the words does not mean we are ungrateful for what we have today, nor does it mean we will reactivate the regret and become bogged down in it. The opposite is true! We are speaking it out loud to begin releasing it from our bodies. Find a trusted person, an isolated mountaintop, even a friendly and loyal dog! But say the words out loud: I regret not going home to be with my mother when she died.
Next, take a look at how that regret has shaped your life. Did you grab onto other relationships with a stranglehold? Did you avoid getting close to people to avoid losing them? Did you march along with a smile on your face to shut the door on the pain? Oh, but wait… There are gifts that can arise from this kind of pain. Did you learn to cherish your family and treat them kindly? Did you learn to never miss an occasion to tell someone you love them? Did you begin following your doctor’s orders so you could maintain your own health? Recognize the effects this regret has had on shaping your life. Some will be unpleasant to look at, but chances are, you have also gained some positive lessons as well.
Third,release the regret. Yes, it is real. Yes, it shaped me and taught me things–good and bad. Yes, it took root in my body and showed up as a sore neck, or a bad back, or ulcers, or knee trouble…The second part of this step is to release yourself from this regret. Go to a peaceful outdoor spot. A mountaintop is fantastic, but a park or beach will work just as well. Choose a natural item that will serve as a symbol of this specific regret. A handful of small twigs works well, as do pebbles and sand. Find a spot and sit quietly with your item, and reflect on the process thus far. When you feel ready, whisper the words out loud, name the regret one more time. Then release the pebbles off the side of a hill, or toss the twigs or sand into water. Watch them disappear and accept that you are no longer held by that sorrow. Occasionally revisit that outdoor spot to nurture your spirit and remind yourself of the journey.
Many of the people who come to me for help are carrying regrets for things they have done. Real or imagined, these regrets can really wreak havoc with our bodies, especially when we have made it a habit, perhaps grown a collection of regrets! All that negative energy just invades our bodies and creates problems down the road.
Clayton, a middle aged executive, was having recurring problems with his lower back when he came to one of my seminars. Physically fit and at a healthy weight, he hoped to find a way out of this chronic painful condition. I noted he had energy trapped in his low back. He mentioned, almost in passing, that he had not always been a good husband and father. It turned out that Clayton was still holding on to regrets for some of the things he had put his family through when he was drinking heavily. Although he no longer drank at all, Clayton had not forgiven himself for his misdeeds. Simply realizing this was incredibly powerful for him.
Because he had reaped the benefits of therapy in the past, he eagerly followed my advice to face his regrets head on. Clayton took his wife to a nature preserve and shared his deep regret for the past problems he had caused for his family. He told her he was grateful for her forgiveness, but that he needed her help to forgive himself. Together, they explored the things their family had suffered and gained through those difficult times. They gathered a basket of leaves together and tossed them off a bridge, forever releasing the pain, shame, and sorrow Clayton’s body had been struggling with all these years. The two of them are enjoying their retirement, and Clayton’s back trouble is also a thing of the past.
There are many events in the world each day that we have no control over. We can’t affect them, no one asks our opinion. While we are powerless over them, the opposite is not true. Frequently the people who attend my seminars are wrapped in deep sadness and regret that comes of our exposure to tragedy.
The violence that we are exposed to on a daily basis is simply astonishing. One hundred years ago, our circles of concern were so much smaller. Now, along with our breakfast cereal, we can read about the suffering and destruction happening all around the globe. And with one click of the remote control, we can see live coverage as well. So many of us seem desensitized to it, but that energy is going somewhere.
Mandy was a passionate, empathetic young woman who suffered from recurring kidney infections. She worked with homeless animals between her classes at a nearby college, and regretted missing work due to these illnesses. It was easy to see that Mandy was a person who feels deeply. She told me how she advocates for the animals at the shelter, and how she went to New Orleans to help the Katrina victims. It made perfect sense when she shared her deep regret for the storms that ravaged that city and hurt so many people. In Mandy’s case, we took a slightly different angle. For Mandy, simply changing some of her input made a huge difference. Her focus had been on the tragedies and the problems for a very long time. Instead of finding more and more ways to assist, she needed to take a break from helping everyone else. She needed to lighten her load and release her burden so she could practice self-care and maintain her balance. Only by taking these measures would she be able to get healthy and continue her good works.
Regret is an acid that eats away at us. It can be tricky to tease out, because we internalize it so subtly. But getting it out in the open, into the fresh air and sunshine, is the first step in finding freedom from regret.