If you have ever taken the time to observe your rational mind at work you will have noticed two compulsive aspects namely: “time-machine” and “auto pilot”.
You have probably experienced these two behaviours working together. It can happen when some event in the present triggers the memory of a past “mistake”, some unpleasant behaviour or a horrible event. An acutely uncomfortable memory arises. It might feel so uncomfortable that it makes you want to cringe. Straightaway, the mental autopilot cuts in with pointless criticism on what you “should have”, “could have” all that you “ought to have” done; “I should have done that differently”; I wouldn’t be here if I’d only done that differently“; “If only I had said that!” “ If only I hadn’t been such a dick”; ¿Why did I waste so many years of my life in that relationship?” “How could I have allowed that to happen?” “Why did he/she do that to me?”
Is there a more pointless activity? I don’t think so! Does it make us happier? No! Does it solve any problem in the present moment? No. There is no point! That’s just the point I want to make. It’s just a mental loop; the rational mind stuck in compulsive autopilot mode, repeating the same phrases, feeling bad time and time again. We become stuck.
In the USA perfect eyesight is classified as 20/20 vision.
Remember that you have gained in both information and experience in the years since that original memory was created. You have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. This means that you now have 20/20 hindsight – perfect vision of the situation. You forget that human memory is immensely fallible. It is not a “recording”. Each time we visit that memory we modify it, making it stronger, distorting and changing the memory. What we experience when we visit a memory is really the last modification of that memory.
More importantly we forget that we were doing our best at that time, with the perception knowledge, information and experience available to us at that time.
I am a different person to who I was say, 30 years ago. Information, events, experience have changed my perception, my values and my behaviour. Some aspects of my character have grown stronger whilst other aspects have grown weaker. I do things differently now to how I behaved then. But that is no great surprise as the “me” of thirty years ago or even three years ago is simply not the “me” of today.
I would no more berate myself for my behaviour twenty years ago than I would berate my six-year old grandchild for not being potty-trained when he was one year old. It would be stupid. He was doing his best within the capabilities of a one year old.
So what to do?
The very first thing is to adopt the right attitude: non-judgemental open curiosity, kindness to yourself and a sense of humour:
- When you catch yourself in the loop of regret for the past, bring yourself fully to the present moment. Fix your attention on your senses; here and now. Floor pushing on your feet, chair pushing on your bottom, then on your breathing.
- Ask yourself, “What would I say to a good friend in the same situation? Now practice saying that to yourself.
- Observe and write down the repetitive negative comments. Usually harsh repetitive phrases directed towards yourself. You will start to realise that there are probably about fifteen and thirty phrases which just repeat, that bear no relationship to reality or what’s going on. The comments are just noise.
- Identify any uncomfortable feeling in your body associated with these thoughts and/or situations then just be with them; allow them space to exist, know them and then breathe into them.
- Turn experience into wisdom. Find the lesson, integrate then let go. Wisdom is being able to let go.
- Be patient with yourself. Keep repeating until your response becomes habitual. Most of all, be kind with yourself.