Resources for Recovering Resilience: How to Grow from Your Regrets

Last week I posted Handwriting Rewires the Brain, including an exercise using journaling to create the Coherent Narrative, a tool that allows people to integrate a difficult experience, even a catastrophic one, into their life story, getting some distance from the emotional turmoil of it, learning whatever lessons can be learned from it.

This week, I’m posting excerpts from How to Grow from Your Regrets by Kira Newman, (see Greater Good Science Center, June 20, 2016 for the entire article) which also uses writing to help people learn from their mistakes and find new motivation to try again. The Self-Compassionate Letter exercise is included below.

Excerpts:

“Sometimes, regret is a deadweight that we carry through life, slowing us down and making our shoulders ache. But other times, it turns into a kind of fuel; it propels rather than hinders, motivates rather than distracts.

“[In a study where 400 participants wrote about their “biggest regret” from a self-compassionate, self-esteem, or neutral stance] participants who had taken a self-compassionate perspective toward their regrets reported more motivation for self-improvement compared to participants in the self-esteem and control groups. They were committed to avoid the same mistake in the future; they felt they had grown and learned from it. Compared with the other two groups, the participants practicing self-compassion were more accepting, and acceptance was in turn linked to more motivation to improve.

“Self-compassion appears to orient people to embrace their regret, and this willingness to remain in contact with their regret may afford people the opportunity to discover avenues for personal improvement,” the researchers write. In other words, when we’re more accepting of our regret, we can face it more fully and learn from it rather than being in denial. If we don’t acknowledge mistakes in the first place, after all, how are we supposed to avoid repeating them?

“The Self-Compassionate Letter is a writing practice that can be applied to regrets. It asks you to think about responding to yourself the way you would treat a friend. Everyone has regrets, and there may have been things in your life-your circumstances, your family, even your genes-that influenced whatever mistake you made at the time. You might also ponder what steps you can take to improve your situation-and avoid similar regrets in the future.”

EXERCISE: SELF-COMPASSIONATE LETTER

First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life.

Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write.

The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.

As you write, follow these guidelines:

1. Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?

2. Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.

3. Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.

4. In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.

5. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.