Often I have moments when something will cause me to remember a choice or action I’ve made in the past that I feel embarrassed about or regret. Sometimes these things just pop into my head without any apparent reason. And I often start to feel really bad, embarrassed, worthless, stupid. I imagine that everyone who knows me only remembers this terrible stuff too.
Sometimes it’s just embarrassing stuff but sometimes it’s stuff where I’ve hurt someone, especially Kathryn, and I feel so much worse – rotten to my core. It might be from yesterday, it might be from a long time ago. When I was a kid there was a time I was mean to a good friend and made her cry, I remember that so clearly and still feel bad.
What I’ve been trying to consider in these moments is the difference between shame and regret. I definitely regret those moments that cause pain, but I think that’s different than defining my whole life by them. My whole relationship with that childhood friend was not defined by that one mean moment, and yet it’s the clearest memory I have of her. And when embarrassing or hurtful things happened in university – that’s not what people remember me for (or at least not the only thing they remember me for).
Today at work this came up. I felt so bad all of a sudden for a conflict that happened with my coworker a few months ago. I apologized afterward and things have been good since, but the memory of the conflict just sort of consumed me and in that moment became the definition of my relationship with this person.
As I walked to the bus stop, I reminded myself that this was a moment of regret, but not one that has continued to define my relationship with her and not one that defines who I am. This eased the shame quite a bit, which surprised me because I’m not used to finding a way to help shame settle down – usually it just overwhelms me until I sleep or do something impulsive/negative.
Obviously the more painful the memory, the harder this is, but I’m hopeful that this little learning moment will help me remember all the positive things when I feel consumed by only the negatives, especially in my relationship with Kathryn.
It’s okay to feel regret – it’s healthy. I don’t have to pretend like every decision I make is good or that my actions and words don’t have weight. But getting overwhelmed in a shame spiral has never once helped me make a decision that I’ve been proud of, I usually just act in ways to confirm the shame, which only makes things worse.
Remembering that those memories cause feelings of regret but don’t have to cause shame can actually help me focus on what I want to do differently, to think about how I can act more consistently with my values going forward. This is what I am working toward.