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See this photo?
That’s me in college — my geeky, marching band, freckle-faced self. When someone tagged me in that picture this week, my immediate reaction was of the, “Oh, holy crap!” variety. And I got a good laugh out of it.
Then I nearly got a good cry out of it.
See that girl? I’ve been really pissed at that girl for awhile. Well, pissed at her slightly older self.
That girl made some decisions I’d never make now, and I’d been on the impossible quest of punishing her. This photo snapped me awake.
Oh my God. Look at her. THAT’s who I’m mad at?
Here’s the deal: historically, when I’ve done something I felt was a screw-up, I’ve made it a point to chastise myself. The bigger the screw-up, the bigger the ass-kicking. And in the past year and a half, I’ve nearly drowned in remorse about a few life-sized decisions made when I was younger.
Have you been there?
My internal dialogue can be “militant,” as someone facilitating a mini retreat gently pointed out to me once. Toss in hefty doses of disgust and anger, and I’m pretty much out to kill.
But kill whom?
Remorse and regret are brutal, aren’t they? The brain on a loop, trying to bend time or find answers that don’t exist. We’re hard-wired to draw conclusions, and regret offers us none that we want to live with.We're hard-wired to draw conclusions, and regret offers us none that we want to live with.Click To Tweet
For those of us who pair anger with our regret, it’s an impossible fight we pick, and the punches we frantically throw land nowhere.
I take that back. They land back on ourselves.
Judging In Hindsight
While going through a divorce last year, I went to counseling (everyone getting divorced should do this, btw). The therapist asked me one day whether it was fair to be mad at my 20-something self. To judge her based on the experience my 40-something self has.
“Hell yeah,” was my first thought. “That girl was an adult; she should’ve known better. She did know better. She ignored the signs and her intuition. She f*cked up in a big way.”
I was throwing punches. Anger is easier than pain (more on that in a moment).
But the therapist was softer. It wasn’t fair to be mad at that girl. She made decisions based on what she knew at the time. About life, about the people in her life. About her situation then.
That girl couldn’t predict the future. Each step unfolded as it did, and she maneuvered it as best she could. Anything different, and I very well could have said instead that she bailed, was unduly harsh, had no commitment.
It made sense intellectually. But damn was I mad at that girl. I had a list of grievances and someone was going to pay.
How do you deal with regret, especially the kind that’s life-altering?
Do you take a good, long bath in that filthy water? Or do you size up the situation and extract the lessons?
I bathed in that muck for awhile and obsessed over why’s and what-if’s. After all, I deserved to have that filth smeared in my face, right? Punishment. Atonement.
I threw those empty punches until I was exhausted by the fight. And in the exhaustion, my mind loosened its hold just a sliver.
“Anger is a catalyst,” Brené Brown writes in her brilliant book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. “Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection.
“It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. Or sometimes anger can mask a far more difficult emotion like grief, regret, or shame, and we need to use it to dig in to what we’re really feeling. Either way, anger is a powerful catalyst but a life-sucking companion.”
I was ready to kick out the life-sucking companion, so I dug in.
Gratitude as its Own End
It started small. As soon as I could breathe a little, I started repeating a mantra to myself: I am grateful for my life’s experiences.
I wasn’t ready to forgive that girl, but I could see my way toward acknowledging that certain experiences had given me depth and added layers of empathy. If we can turn our situation inside-out, it helps immensely. And I learned this: the more gratitude we express, the more we find to be grateful for.
Related Reading: Gratitude in Action: Playing Piano in Floodwaters
It can feel a little hollow and insincere at first, but within a few months, my gratitude practice took hold. I vowed to take those experiences I found painful or negative and to use them to help others. The anger would not win. Those who I felt had wronged me would not hold power over me.
Admittedly, there’s still a bit of vengeful competitiveness in there. A desire to do large things with my life not only for me and for my son, but also to squash a few low-down, no good, inauthentic and back-stabbing people along the way.
Ahem. I’m a work in progress. 🙂 We all take these things a step at a time.
Over the past year, I let go of some of the anger directed at 20-something Karin. I got a little more honest about where she was in life — a lot less self confident than I had realized, more in a rush to nail down her future than I would have admitted, more gullible, even.
And then that photo showed up.
People Are Hard to Hate Close Up
Brown quotes novelist James A. Baldwin at the start of Chapter 4: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
The chapter is titled, “People Are Hard To Hate Close Up. Move In.” She writes how easy it can be to hate large groups of people. Democrats, Republicans, religious groups, marginalized communities, etc — we’ve become a society that dehumanizes categories of people … then tells ourselves that our neighbors or our friends are the exceptions.
Suddenly, I realized something else: that can include ourselves. I was face-to-face with that girl for the first time in years and when she was there, close up, I couldn’t hate her anymore. I looked at that photo, stunned, as the anger melted.
The therapist was right (as usual): It hadn’t been a fair fight.
The truth is, the girl in that picture isn’t as resilient as she thinks she is. Not yet, anyway. She doesn’t have the courage she thinks she does. She reads people well, but she doesn’t follow her intuition like she should, especially when it’s uncomfortable or would result in confrontation.
I developed resiliency, courage, self-confidence and learned to trust and act on my intuition because of what she did. I owe her my gratitude.
If you’ve been harboring anger and resentment toward yourself, maybe this exercise can help you: Dig up an old photo and take a look at that person. Meditate if you need to.
Lean into the feeling, revisit that time. And be accurate, not revisionist. This is where the photo helps. It had been easy for me to be pissed at a faceless younger version of myself, or to only envision my older self. That photo made it obvious how different I was then from who I am now.
People are hard to hate close up. Even ourselves.
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