Present Perfect Series Part 2: Making Mistakes and Dealing with Guilt & Regret

FullSizeRenderSo here we are again for Part 2 of my series on Present Perfect by Dr. Pavel Somov. Today’s post is about two main topics: 1) Making Mistakes and 2) Dealing with Guilt & Regret. Now before you laugh over the Dane Cook quote at the start of the chapter on mistakes, try to forget the fact that he said it and instead focus on the message: “I did my best.” Pulling from the post on Part 1 that spoke about theoretical vs. practical best regarding the B vs. A exam grade, this quote actually contains much more depth than meets the eye.

If we think back to the idea that when a task is completed it is inherently perfect in nature and cannot be improved upon, this allows us to more effectively close the door on the gnat that is our theoretical best. This concept becomes especially important when the idea of making a mistake is brought up. Perfectionists spend a lot of time ruminating about past mistakes, about how things should have been done differently than they were. One way to stop this vicious cycle of self-berating is to acknowledge that mistakes are one of two things: a mismatch of expectations or an accident.

If a mistake is viewed as a mismatch of expectations it is simply a situation in which you are aching for your theoretical best to have taken place instead of your practical best. It is a moment in which the real and the ideal are pitted against each other, and we all know that given the choice, a perfectionist will always, always favor the ideal. If we can try to let go of our impossible to meet expectations just a little bit and open up our minds to accepting what has happened as the only way it could have happened, there is so much peace of mind to be found in that space. This doesn’t mean that we should not learn from situations in our past that we feel we do not want to repeat, but that we can try to be a little bit more gentle and compassionate with ourselves over past actions that we have no logical power to change.

Option #2, that mistakes are accidents, helps explain the idea that, sometimes in life, things just happen. Somov defines an accident as, “a collision of variables that cannot be reasonably anticipated.” (p. 77) Accidents are realities of the world that we live in, seeing as there are a number of variables existing in our day to day lives that we as humans do not have the capacity to foresee. This type of mistake is much easier to let go of than the previous categorization because it has less to do with personal responsibility and the disappointment of not meeting our own standards.

Either way, it is important to approach the “mistakes” we make with the following phrase that Dr. Somov proposes:

“Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, Buddha.”

In this quote, buddha means, “awakened” or “enlightened” in Pali and, in its lowercase form as, “a symbol of acceptance and appreciation of the natural perfection of what is.” The next time you find yourself thinking “I should’ve done this…” or “I could’ve done that…” try to think of the word “buddha” and let its deeper meaning be a reminder to be at peace with what has happened while still learning from the experience.

Now onto the second portion of this post: dealing with guilt and regret – these are the two most common side-effects so to speak of making a “mistake.” Their triplet ‘shame’ is usually also invited to the party seeing as these three never stray far from one another. There is a large paragraph at the start of Chapter 7 where Dr. Somov explains the typical vicious cycle of a perfectionist after they make a mistake. These emotions are at the heart of depression as well as chronic anxiety, which is why it is so important to learn coping mechanisms for when these completely human emotions present themselves in our lives.

He explains that, “guilt, embarrassment, and shame prompt bouts of redemptive striving” which serve as means of compensating for ones “mistakes and imperfections.” (p. 82) The problem with this strategy is that it just uses heightened perfectionism to numb those not so fun emotions. More and more will ride on your next act of proving one’s self worth and your flawlessness, and there will never be any room for acceptance of what has happened in the past and what is happening presently. In other words, there is no room for joy, for self-acceptance, or for contentment in both one’s gifts and imperfections.

Dr. Somov explains the difference between guilt and regret when he states, “just like guilt, regret is a wish that something unfortunate hadn’t happened. But unlike guilt, regret is void of any sense of personal responsibility for the occurrence.” (p. 84) As we learned earlier, to wish that something had not happened the way that it did is wasted energy because what has been completed is perfect and cannot be changed or improved upon. He also notes a strategy for not taking a guilt trip from someone who wants you to help them by, “reminding yourself that there is nothing morally or ethically wrong with your own pursuit of well-being at the moment.” (p. 84) which I found particularly enlightening.

Anyway, the last and final part of my far-too-long post about these two chapters is about taking into account the motives, not the consequences of your actions. The bottom line is that, sometimes in life, unfortunate things happen and ‘mistakes’ are made. The important thing to realize in order to constructively swim through and out of guilt, regret, and shame is that the intentions behind your actions hold the key to safely swimming ashore. If we can remind ourselves that the intentions behind our actions were good at heart, it puts these painful emotions in their place and minimizes them without numbing them. Oftentimes, the most important step in this journey is to step back from kicking ourselves and instead be compassionate with ourselves, just like we would a friend.

I was reading Eat, Pray, Love the other night and stumbled across this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert that I found to be completely mesmerizing, and it fits quite well with this ending thought.

“Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.” – Elizabeth Gilbert


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