20/20 Hindsight and How to Avoid Regret
Learn to disarm your inner critic and end regret.
Posted Jan 28, 2017
I think you will enjoy this guest post by meditation teacher and author Mark Coleman. It's an excerpt from his new book Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic.
You know about your inner critic, that voice that makes you second-guess your decisions by saying “not enough,” “not good enough,” or sometimes “too much.” It isn't as invincible as it seems. Keep reading.
How many times have you made a plan, or gotten swept up in an impulse buy or extravagant purchase, then lived to regret the decision? There’s a reason for the expression “buyer’s remorse.” What about all the things you’ve said to loved ones in the heat of the moment that you wish you could take back? Did you have relationships in your teens or twenties and later wonder how you could have ever gone out with that person? Do you sometimes look at your calendar and regret booking yourself so solid and saying yes to all those projects?
Who hasn’t made a decision and later wished they had done something different? It seems to be part of life. It is bad enough to feel you made a wrong decision. As bad as that is, it’s even worse when your critic doesn’t let you forget you “messed up” because you moved to a company that went belly up, bet on a losing stock, or chose a crazy person to date. How long has your critic been berating you for decisions you made years ago? How much unnecessary pain has that caused?
Regret is one of the stickiest places in my own psyche. My critic has been quite vocal about all the supposedly incorrect decisions I’ve made in the past, which makes it harder to make a clear decision without fearing the critic’s wrath. “What if I make the ‘wrong’ choice?” I hear my mind say in anticipation of an upcoming dilemma.
Like many who have devoted their lives to inner spiritual work and not so much to making money, I have been burned a few times in my somewhat amateur investing attempts. Once in the dot-com crash in 2000, and again in the real estate crash in 2008. Predictably, my critic has something to say about my relationship to money — that I’m not to be trusted in that department. (Since that time I have mostly let others with more experience and skill in financial matters do the investing for me!)
IS THE CRITIC EVER RIGHT?
You could say the critic has a valid point, given my less-than-lucrative attempts at investing. The problem, however, is what’s implied in its critique: shame, guilt, and the assessment that I’m a failure with money and, by extension, everything else. The challenging thing about the critic’s attacks is the emotional legacy they leave behind, such as fear and paralysis when it comes to making choices, and a sense of inadequacy.
Since the critic always has the unfair advantage of 20/20 vision, it is easy for it to dole out judgments about past choices regarding money, career, or relationships. It is not hard, in hindsight, to say what you should or shouldn’t have done, what would have been a smarter choice regarding a relationship, a new job, an investment, or a secondhand car.
Hindsight gives us the perspective we just don’t have when making a decision. And it is pointless, if not downright unfair, to blame ourselves in hindsight. Learning from past errors is, of course, necessary. But the blame-and-shame game is unnecessary and unhelpful.
Sometimes the critic thinks that if it berates us enough, we won’t make the same mistake again. In my experience this is rarely true. No matter how much the critic judges me for moves I’ve made in the past, it doesn’t help with the next decision. In fact, the critic’s judgments make it more difficult to make good decisions in the future because they cloud our thinking with fear and hopelessness about the decision-making process.
There is no necessarily right or wrong decision. What seems like a good thing at one moment may be a bad thing from another perspective and vice versa. Using DDT to eradicate malaria in the United States seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know the impact of its toxic fallout. It almost obliterated many species of birds, including the bald eagle. From the vantage point of today, we can see it was a shortsighted idea.
It is also important to remember that we try to do the best we can with the information and resources at hand. That’s true of every decision we’ve ever made, no matter how bad it turned out to be. If we could have done better, we would have done so. It doesn’t help to thrash ourselves for not knowing better; we have to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. To understand this is very liberating; it frees us from the torment of recrimination.
GOTTA LET GO
The ability to let go also helps mitigate the force of the critic, which, like other aspects of the ego, wants and needs control. It believes that if it can control things, it can manage situations so we get what we need and avoid what is threatening. However, there are far too many factors outside our control to know for sure which way the stock or housing market will go or how a relationship may unfold. Yes, we could do better and make better choices if we had a crystal ball, but we don’t have that luxury.
Instead life demands that we put our stake in the ground, make our choice, and do our best to meet whatever actually happens. Of course, we would like a particular outcome, but we don’t need to chastise ourselves when things don’t go our way. Ideally, we practice letting go of trying to control experience, situations, and people because we realize that is never really possible anyway. We trust that we made the best decision we could at the time, we see what happens, and we learn. And if necessary, we let go.
It’s important to stress that regrets resulting from 20/20 hindsight are not easy to be with. They are unpleasant, and made worse by our aversion to both the feeling and the memory that triggers it. The experience is felt as a heaviness in the body. In the mind we may feel it as fogginess and a torrent of self-judging thoughts. Emotionally we may notice it as a contraction in our heart.
The challenge with a difficult experience like regret is to have the courage to take our attention close to it and feel it, without the additional layer of self-reproach. When we can get to the root of regret, and separate the critic from the experience, we fully learn from our actions. Then we can have genuine remorse, where we see the error of our ways and form an intention not to go down the same road again. This brings a freedom that is not dragged down by the burden of chastising ourselves.
- This was a guest post by Mark Coleman, the author of Make Peace with Your Mind and Awake in the Wild. He is the founder of the Mindfulness Institute and has an MA in Clinical Psychology. Mark has guided students on five continents as a corporate consultant, counselor, meditation teacher, and wilderness guide. Visit him online.
- Excerpted from Make Peace with Your Mind. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Coleman. Printed with permission from New World Library.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie's Heel.