We all make mistakes. It is an inevitable, yet forgivable, consequence of being human. In the best-case scenario, we learn from them and let them go. In hindsight, mistakes often teach us what did not work and what we could do better next time.
Certain mistakes, however, especially ones that we consider to be unjustified and hurtful, will linger in our memories, often creating an ongoing, ever-deepening well of emotional pain. Whether this pain is directed towards oneself or toward another, it contributes significantly to stress, unhappiness and ill health.
Regrets that we find difficult to release come in all shapes and sizes, but what they all have in common is that they continue to have a negative impact on our lives. Some regrets center around a traumatic experiences such as a bitter divorce or a friend's betrayal. Other regrets result in feelings of injustice about things that we did that we wish we had not done, or things that we did not do that we wish we had done.
Resentment is emotional quicksand. As we continually replay past hurtful events in our minds, we sink deeper into an internal environment of escalating stress, depletion and isolation. Moving from feeling bitter to feeling better will involve the sacred work of identifying, validating, grieving and releasing past pain.
In a study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from Hope College examined the emotional and physiological effects that result from rehearsing hurtful memories and nursing grudges, compared with imagining and granting forgiveness. They found that when the test subjects harbored unforgiving thoughts, they experienced more aversive emotions and an immediate increase in both heart rate and blood pressure. Conversely, the study found that, "forgiving thoughts prompted greater perceived control and lower physiological stress responses."
In his book No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind, Dr. Hamilton Beazley writes:
While we cannot change a past event, we can change our reaction to it, our understanding of it, and what we do with it. In other words, we can change the psychological effect of that past event on our lives. And when we change the psychological effect of something, it is like changing the thing itself. After all, it is the psychological effect that determines how the event influences us in the present. So for all practical purposes, we can change the past.
To initiate the process of releasing regret, begin with these three steps:
Reach Out to Receive Support
When you feel regret escalating and your self-talk degrades into a litany of "If only I..." or "I still can't believe that..." ask for help and grab hold of the loving hand of a friend, a licensed counselor, or a trusted clergy. Receiving this support can help you refrain from descending into those all too familiar and habitual patterns of anger, sadness and desolation. With caring assistance, we can find the courage to examine our regrets more objectively, honestly and fairly.
Practice: This six-minute video titled "Feeling Others" will help you to embrace the benefits of giving and receiving support.
Name it to Tame it
Describing and naming the deep losses associated with our regrets, and the many painful consequences we have experienced as a result, will serve to begin to open and drain the internal backlog of emotional pain. Caring for ourselves in this way will facilitate us in awakening our internal resources of nurturance and self-understanding.
Practice: This seven-minute video titled "Feeling Compassion" will assist you in remembering to care for yourself, even in the midst of difficulties and challenges.
Rehearse Peace, Not Pain
Proactively invite coherence of heart and mind by dwelling on peaceful images. When your thoughts and emotions return to images of past pain, gently redirect your focus to calming images of reassurance, respite and relief. In the healing process, what we put in is often actually more important than what we take out. Begin to loosen the grip of suffering by steadfastly reminding yourself that you deserve peace instead of more pain.
Practice: This seven-minute video titled "Feeling Harmony" will aid you in softening and expanding your heart emotions.
It is both instructive and productive for us to remember that the act of releasing regret is more about extending love and compassion into any remaining places of pain. It is less about who or what should be blamed or shamed for the original wounding. It's about laying our burdens down in this present moment, recovering and restoring our life force, and redirecting our innate power toward reconciliation and emotional freedom.
What practices help you in releasing past pain and regret?
This article was originally published on Ornish Living
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more