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Few questions can shake my ground in a way this question does. In my experience, hearing this question creates a sense of discomfort in my chest and throat because I know there is an uncomfortable truth to be revealed that can go as far as challenging my integrity and my identity. The base assumption is that in order to evaluate an undesired situation more proactively, it is needed to acknowledge what, within my control, I am not taking responsibility for.
Daniel H. Pink’s “The Power of Regret” does an excellent job exploring how looking with transparency at our wrong choices can move us forward and not keep us falling into the same traps. I had in the past responded, without fully understanding what it meant, that “life happened in the way it had happened; thus there is no point of tapping into regret.” I have heard others, saying “this who I am, no regrets” (exalting faults as virtues simply because they are taken as a critical aspect to “who they are”). Advocates would argue that being ruthless with regrets prevents you from getting in-prisoned in the past. However, how do you acquire learning, forgiveness, or reparation without first admitting that your conscious or unconscious contributions lead to undesired results?
Another default response to look at one’s decisions is to think that “everything happens for a reason” (mainly for those influenced by religion). Again it seems to be a natural strategy to avoid the uncomfortable feelings by providing a stable ground founded on faith in a larger plan of the universe. Nonetheless, the cost you pay to avoid frustration and disappointment too quickly is that you do not fully incorporate the learning from experience. Negative emotions like guilt and shame have, in their inception, a clear biological justification for keeping us aware that a wrong decision, especially if threatened the trust of the tribe (back in hunter-gatherer societies), could have had devastating consequences on one’s survival. Therefore the goal for a good life is not only based on getting rid of negative emotions but correspondingly on using them as a stream of data to inform our experience (not to omit that emotion in the 21-century work, more often than not, as a false alarm rather than a survival warning). Looking at your flaws is what extreme ownership means, to go beyond the fact that it might not have been your fault or intention to hurt, let down, or act in a reckless, careless, or immoral way. Yet, it doesn’t mean you are not responsible for the results.
For the sake of having regret be healthy, it requires a couple of factors. First comes from separating the mistake from yourself by avoiding negative conclusions about your nature (it is also quite helpful when looking at the mistakes of others too). One can be firm in their integrity about judging behavior while being at the same time compassionate with the person. Second, one can accept and admit what is. In other words, not trying to obscure or ignore outcomes as they happened (intelligent people tend to be really great at rationalizing the situation). Third, identify what led you to make the decisions you took (otherwise, how would you know that you would not fall prey to the same reasoning you had in a similar situation in the future?). Finally, find strong reasons you shouldn’t make the same mistakes (it might counteract the inertia to strong behavior patterns).
In my coaching practice, I make my clients work on a “failure resume,” which facilitates the process for my clients to fragment most painful and unfortunate events and decisions that till this day have not been fully integrated into their being. Such was the first step I took to have real honest conversations with myself because owning the totality of one’s life includes making sense of how the experiences from my past that I labeled as failures provided the lessons that aid in obtaining a later success.
Maria Popova, an extraordinary writer from Bulgaria, shares that you can give yourself the uncomfortable luxury and gift to change your mind. It is not a sign of weakness but rather a truthful acceptance that we don’t have to be always right about the mental posture we currently have. I am all into allowing myself to make mistakes with the intention of moving forward (in psychology research, it seems that it creates less remorse than the mistakes that come as a result of lack of action). Though the strategy would be in vain if there is no genuine capacity to recognize, as irritating as it is, our present (or past) contribution to the complexity of the maze we are trying to get out from.
With all love,
Santiago Barragan Noguera
Coach & Educator — Artistic Polymath
Copyright © 2021 Santiago Barragan Noguera. All rights reserved.