My last few weeks have been filled with volatility of many kinds – mostly relational.
As a parent of a 17 year-old, I realize that a certain amount of, shall we say, “excitement” at home is par for the course, but adding on a variety of other relational complexities with people near and dear to me has stirred up a ton of “stuff” in my inner life.
When I am under stress, I default to old habits and more reactive consciousness.
For me, this looks like over-functioning instead of staying clearly in my lane, reacting compulsively to external stimuli instead of settling into myself and choosing my reactions intentionally, and making agreements (with the best of intentions) that I simply don’t have the resources to actually keep or honor instead being mindful and thoughtful about what I can actually accomplish and commit to each day.
And it gets worse.
I imagine you probably know the next layer, right?
People provide feedback about what isn’t working for them.
They’re feeling hurt, disappointed, irritated, upset. Sad. Angry.
They detail their objections and lay out a suggested plan for me to change.
Sometimes they are gentle and kind in their invitation to examine things, and sometimes – like me – they are clumsy, awkward, and reactive.
And you know my oh-so-enlightened (not!) first response to all this?
I fall into an old trap.
I take responsibility for other people’s feelings, hear the feedback as criticism and blame, take it personally and respond defensively, descend into varying degrees of guilt, shame and defensiveness, and then apologize reactively, just as a way to just protect myself and get out of the hot seat.
In these moments, it helps when I (finally) remember to switch lanes and re-enter the practice of Beneficial Regret, which helps me
to acknowledge and learn from missed opportunities,
to greet moments of emerging awareness and consciousness with more grace and compassion, and
to gently detach from the grip of old domination based tools like shame, punishment and blame.
Beneficial regret is a far more powerful practice than our cultural habit of simply saying “I’m sorry” as a way of shutting down further conversation and inquiry. It allows me to maintain my dignity and self-worth while staying connected to the learning and growth that any situation has in store for me.
Why not just say “I’m sorry”?
The cultural practice of simply saying “I’m sorry” can be problematic and unsatisfying in a variety of ways. We usually speak these words out of a domination consciousness within ourselves that goes something like this:
People are bad and unsafe, they do bad things, we need to catch and identify the bad things they do, we need to shame them and make them feel even more bad for the thing they’ve done, they need to then take the blame and fix the bad thing and make it go away so that we aren’t ever hurt that way again and the world can be a safer place.
It simply doesn’t work.
Do we want ourselves and others to take responsibility for our/themselves? Yes.
Do we want ourselves and others to learn from what isn’t working to meet people’s needs? Yes.
Do we want the experience of mattering and being cared about in our relationships? Yes?
Do we want to get feedback, collaboration, and new strategies around things that aren’t working? Yes.
Do we want to nurture growth, learning, healing and transformation? Yes.
Strategies based upon judgment, shame, and blame are not good tools for getting us there. They attack the dignity of the imperfect human being, create emotionally unsafe spaces and rely on fear, distress, threat, and conditional love to create systems of compliance.
When we respond to feedback from others with shame and self-blame, we are unable to stay connected to one another and we abandon the relationship in the service of “rightness” and self-protection, which simply hurts us more. In our shame, we tend to turn away from our partner and their painful experience, focusing instead on our own old wounds and insecurities. In this way we abandon an opportunity for connection and support.
So what works instead?
Beneficial regret is the open-hearted practice of staying focused on what each person is needing, and seeing all behaviors and choices as unconscious – often fear-based – habitual strategies that we learned earlier in life as children. These no longer serve us as fully functioning creative adults.
It involves recognizing everything that happens and emerges in our relational spaces as an opportunity for self-awareness, insight, healing, and growth. It reminds us to see everything as on our way, not in our way. It’s about owning our part in outcomes that don’t meet people’s needs without losing ourselves or turning on ourselves in the process.
When we remember that feelings are caused by a combination of each person’s unmet needs as well as the mental models and meaning-making system through which they experience events, we can see many more creative and relational responses that might actually support learning, healing and connection between people.
When we drop the idea that there are “bad people” and “good people” or “bad parts” and “good parts,” we can start having a new conversation.
We can stay open to one another’s experiences.
We can hear how people were impacted by whatever we did or didn’t do.
We can express care for the impact without taking it personally or descending into self-blame and shame.
We can stay connected to the needs arising for each person and become curious about our own default, unconscious scripts.
We get the opportunity for more self-discovery, more self-compassion, and more humility.
Humility (not humiliation) helps us be fully human. None of us are that great, and none of us are that bad.
I find great relief in remembering that each of us is just a work in progress, doing the best we can to love ourselves and one another as we go.
It’s never perfect. It doesn’t go smoothly.
We have all sorts of unhealed pain, fears, and memories that distort our perceptions. Those are for each of us to welcome and embrace, and then clear away and metabolize.
We get attached to worldviews, preferences, desires. Those are for each of us to recognize, reexamine, and release as needed.
Learn to soften, to yourself and others.
Practice greeting yourself with grace and gentleness – you’ll be able to offer that to others also.
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Yvette, thank you for this message today. You framed this so beautifully – it seems simple, yet being aware of when we go into "default" is tricky! I will be thinking more deeply about when I react from fear in an attempt to feel safe – and when/why I find ease in treating myself with grace and gentleness (and extend it to others with the same ease and tenderness) – yet other times judgment and self-protection reflect my dis-ease. Both are reasons to make space for meditation practice. Hmmmm.