Last summer, my kid enrolled in a one-week magic camp. On the last day of camp, the kids put on a show for the parents. I dropped my kid off that morning and told her I’d be back for the show.
Then life intervened. By life, I’m not talking about sick relatives, friends in distress or even a flat tire. No, I’m talking about email. Before leaving for the show, I had about ten minutes to kill, so I checked it.
The next thing I knew, I had about five minutes to make a 15-minute trip.
I tailgated, sped, and cursed the whole way.
I ran into the building and pushed my way past various excessively slow-walking parents with toddlers. I took the steps three at a time.
I threw open the door to my daughter’s classroom. It was lined with parents. A child was in the midst of sticking pencils through water balloons without popping them or having them leak a drop of water. My daughter was sitting, staring into space, her eyes red and puffy and her cheeks soaked with tears.
I’d missed her act.
With my heart still thumping in my chest, I hugged her and breathlessly told her I was sorry. I kissed her cheeks, wiped her tears, and willed time to stop, reverse and allow me a do-over.
At the end of the show, the teacher allowed my daughter to do her trick again. She pulled a tablecloth out from underneath a table setting, but she did it almost in slow motion. For her, there was no joy. She’d lost her enthusiasm the moment she’d stepped on the stage a half hour before and realized I was not there.
It’s a horrible feeling to know that you’ve blown it—to know that you missed an opportunity that you can never recreate or get back. The universe does not allow us to live in rewind. No, life always moves forward. It never stops, and it doesn’t allow one to edit one’s past.
It’s just horrible and, if you’ve never once experienced the sensation of regret, I hope you never have to.
I spent the rest of the day trying to erase that horrible feeling. I canceled the rest of my work day. I took my daughter to the gift shop and let her buy whatever she wanted. I took her out for ice cream. And I said I was sorry about once every hour.
Eventually she asked, “Why do you keep apologizing? I already told you that I forgave you.”
That’s when I realized that, sometimes, even forgiveness can’t erase the ache of regret.
You might attempt to assuage my guilt by telling me that, in the scheme of things, this one incident probably will not ruin my child for life. As far as childhood traumas go, it’s a mild one. You might also remind me that my kid has already forgiven, and probably even forgotten.
But none of that matters to a guilty conscience. She might have forgiven and forgotten, but I have not.
Guilt and regret are perverse like that. They often exist only in one’s mind and are massively out of sync with the true nature of things. I hurt my daughter once, for a brief moment in time. I hurt myself more, over and over again with my regrets over that moment.
Guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t erase the past. It doesn’t make my daughter feel any more loved. If anything, it only works to hurt. It hurts me by making me feel bad and draining my energy. It hurts my loved ones because I have less energy to offer them.
That’s why, over the past six months, I’ve examined different methods for releasing it.
I tried the “time will heal all wounds” tactic. Let me tell you: it didn’t heal this wound. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough time.
I also tried magical thinking. I tried to convince myself that I’d actually really been there. I visualized the experience going the way I wanted it to go. There I was in the room, plenty of time before the show. There she is, walking up to her little table. Now she’s standing there with that sneaky look on her face. Then she pulls the tablecloth out. Nothing falls on the floor. Everyone claps. I smile. I give her a thumb’s up. I hug her and tell her how amazing she is and that I could never have done such a trick.
I wish magical thinking worked for me. It doesn’t. If anything, it makes me feel worse.
What has worked, to some degree, is a purification ritual I learned from my Buddhist meditation class. I’ll share it with you in case you find it helpful. You do it in four parts.
- Feel the regret. Mentally switch places with the person you’ve wronged. What does it feel like to be abandoned, lied to, let down, disappointed, or ignored? Feel that person’s pain and suffering as if you are experiencing it yourself. For me, that meant, in my mind, I was not the person watching the magic trick. Rather, I was the child whose mother didn’t show up. After really and truly feeling and knowing this suffering, I was able to come to a strong decision, “I never want to make anyone feel this kind of suffering ever again. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want this to stop. I want to show up—always.”
- Rely on something bigger than yourself for help. If you are spiritual, then you can rely on God, the Buddha or another spiritual being. Or maybe you rely on something more solid, such as a friend or mentor that you look up to. Or perhaps it’s a book of advice that you find soothing and helpful whenever you are going through tough times. For me, it’s all of these things. Lean on this person or thing for support, help, and advice. Ask for help. Be vulnerable. Say, “I can’t do this alone.”
- Atone. Perform a virtuous action to cancel out the non-virtuous one. For me, it meant that, in the evening, when I usually checked email and surfed the web, I instead turned off my computer and tuned into my kid.
- Promise to change. Create a plan for the future, and tackle it in baby steps. For me, it meant I promised to show up and tune into my kid everyday, listening with my full attention. For you, it might be something else.
I don’t know if this four step process works for every form of guilt, but I can say that it has helped me transform mine. I still regret that day, sure. But, with this four step process, I’ve been able to transform that guilt into a source of energy that helps me to become a better mother and person in general. I hope it helps you, too. Let me know.
Note: I’ve been trying to fix the comments section on this site. I would love if many of you would comment. It would allow me to find out whether the comments area is still broken. You can tell me and others about guilt that you’ve struggled to release. What has worked for you? What hasn’t? Does guilt serve any good purpose? Why or why not? What leads to you feeling guilty and why?
Let me know if it doesn’t work by emailing me Alisa (at) AlisaBowman (dot) com.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.