- Lee Lovett III, LMSW & Pamela Newman, LCSW-C
Managing the Ghosts of your Past
How often do you find yourself thinking about a regret you have or a mistake that you made? Are you able to look back at your past and look fondly upon it, or do recall moments and cringe a bit?
If you cringe, that’s okay. We all experience that sometimes. But we want to make sure that the cringing doesn’t happen too often, or, when it does, that it doesn’t swallow us up and make us feel horribly for hours on end. If you look back with fondness – be grateful. Ideally, we are able to find peace and joy most of the time. Typically, when peace and joy are long-lasting, regret isn’t haunting us throughout the day and night. Many however, are haunted by mistakes or regrets from their past.
Picture regret as a somber, head down to the floor ghost, who might have positive intentions but is behaving inappropriately. Inappropriately? What do I mean by that? I mean that the regret-ghost (RG) is pushing you down rather than guiding you ahead. We can’t guide ahead when we are being beaten down, and regret can be one of those things that weighs on us and changes our outlook to one of negativity and hopelessness. Ironically, RG wants us to have things like peace, love, joy, security and safety. But it doesn’t realize that critiquing, blaming, and longing for you to have changed what you have already done is futile, unhelpful, and even potentially catastrophic.
Take a moment to consider where you first learned to beat yourself up? Is this a habit you picked up from someone specific? Developing an awareness of where these habits originated can help us to overcome them and implement more positive habits.
So, what do we do when those regrets pop in our head and we find ourselves consumed?
Align with Regret-Ghost: Rather than greeting it with negativity or forcing it to go away, try greeting it as if you would someone you care about; with kindness, compassion, seeking to understand, patience, and tolerance. What if, when regret-ghost shows up, you meet them with those qualities? Remember, the Regret Ghost has good intentions, it just goes about talking to us in an ineffective way.
Practice being present: Everything changes all the time emotions are temporary. Try to focus on being in the moment and in the room, rather than stuck in your head. The less present we are, the less we show up, the more lost in thought we become. When we are lost in thought, we can easily drift back into the past, and RG comes swooping in – head down, sulking, stammering and poking us in the back of the neck with a cane. No one wants that, right? I certainly don’t and neither do those around us.
Just try your best: Your best is good enough and there is no “Gold Standard” that you need to abide by. Try to go easier on yourself and on others. Let’s choose to believe that those around us did the best they could with the resources available (external and internal, like their ability to concentrate and retain information). So, when choosing that belief, can we talk to them with a validating tone, assuring them that it’s okay that they got that grade, and aligning (there we go) to determine how they can work together to do a bit better next time?
Be mindful of how we talk to ourselves out loud: Those around us (especially kids) are listening and watching. If you can practice changing your internal language, the way you speak to others will change as well. As Glennon Doyle said, “Turns out: beating myself up didn’t change the past. But it did drain me of motivation and hope for the future.”
Tips for Kids: On the surface, RG might appear scary. Are your kids familiar with Ghostbusters? With the iconic symbol of the red slash going through an image of a ghost? Well, when they feel RG approaching, empower them to call to mind that image (and we encourage you to practice this with them). Summoning that image will help aid your kids in dismissing the part of RG that isn’t helpful, and, in turn, have them replace the image with a positive character. Are they into Marvel? Disney? Have them think of that brave character, and to force a smile. They can tell themselves things like, “I’ve got this. I’m not alone. Everything will be okay. I am strong.” And those positive affirmations aren’t just for them – we can all stand to remind ourselves of those things.
We can’t change the past, we can only consider how we want to handle things moving forward. Try to view mistakes as a learning opportunity to improve and grow. Again, think work with rather than work against. We can seek to understand, and really be present and listen to others as they tell us their story of what happened. When others feel heard, they feel more valued and validated.
Oscar Wilde said, “The one charm of the past is that it is the past.” We have the ability to move on and try to “let go” of things that happened in the past. We can then view “Regret Ghost” as something that helps us to see how much we have progressed and how far we’ve come.