Heads up: Y’all, this ain’t professional mental health advice, it’s about my personal observations and what’s worked for me. I’m not your therapist. If you want professional help tailored to your own situation, it’s best to get yourself a counselor!
In a session this week, I came up with the analogy of the “Shame-Regret Vinaigrette.”
Shame and regret are two pretty miserable emotions. They tend to travel together, especially among people who are not used to making mistakes (hi) or feeling bad at things (also hi). Preeminent-researcher-on-shame and omnipresent-self-help-darling Brené Brown has described shame as being the feeling that we are “flawed and therefore unworthy of love“. It’s not a helpful feeling, it’s just kicking ourselves when we’re already down.
Regret (alongside its cousin guilt), however, is adaptive. Regret is action-oriented. It highlights a decision we made that we would now do differently, and in doing so, it helps us understand our values. For a long time, I was horribly ashamed of who I was in high school–I looked back on those years with deep revulsion and a belief that I deserved to be rejected and scorned for it. Over time, however, that has shifted to regret over how I acted. It’s still not a comfortable feeling, but thinking that way allows me to see what matters to me today and identify the ways I’ve grown and am continuing to grow.
It’s helpful, therefore, to be able to separate shame from regret.
But therein lies the rub. The more shame and regret are agitated, the more they emulsify and intermingle, and the harder it is to pull them apart. It used to be that when I thought about my high school years, I got hit with a horrible pang of shame, and I would immediately react. Mentally, I shoved that thought as far away as possible. Sometimes, the discomfort would seep into my muscles, and I’d try to shake the thought out of my head–literally, I’d shake my head like I was clearing a bad dream. My mouth would make weird “gack ack ack” noises.
And that would seem to work… for a moment. So long as I didn’t look at the thought again, I could avoid that shame. But the next time I was reminded of it, bam!, there it was again. Ugh! Gross! Push it away further!
This year, as I’ve done more mindfulness meditation, I’ve become familiar with how engaging with a thought–whether to dwell on it or to counter it–keeps that thought alive. Even when I was trying to push my shame-filled thoughts away, I was still engaging with them, still treating them like Important Business. Whether I dwelt on them or ran from them, I was still reacting to them, and in doing so, I was shaking up the Shame-Regret Vinaigrette.
If you want to get to the helpful, productive regret, then, one way to do it is to disengage. I began mindfully observing my thoughts and feelings, but resisting the urge to run with them. I noticed what my shame felt like, but tried to “ride the wave” of discomfort instead of seeking an immediate solution. As I did, it was like I stopped agitating the jar. Shame and regret started separating. I could see the difference between “I’m a horrible person for how I acted,” and “Today, I absolutely would not act the way I did in high school.”
One of those was helpful, so I began focusing on that and letting go of the rest.
The Shame-Regret Vinaigrette, therefore, is ultimately about acknowledging your feelings without engaging with them. It’s about giving yourself space to observe without agitating the jar… and letting the unhelpful stuff naturally filter out.
“…okay, but why would you want to let the oil filter out of a vinaigrette?”
LOOK I NEVER SAID IT WAS A PERFECT ANALOGY 😜