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Receptivity and offering: Reframing regrets

Lynne Baab • Saturday February 19 2022

Receptivity and offering: Reframing regrets

I wrote last week about a fascinating book about regret by Daniel H. Pink. Here’s a summary of his argument, referencing academic research on regret and a survey of 16,000 people who responded online to his questions about regret:

“The conclusion from both the science and the survey is clear: Regret is not dangerous or abnormal. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Equally important, regret is valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.” [1] In last week’s post, I gave a longer summary of his main point.

Pink gives three guidelines for coping with regret in a way that clarifies, instructs, and lifts us up: reframe your regret, disclose your experience (share it with others), and extract a lesson. In this post and my next few posts, I want to look at his three strategies through the lens of the teachings of Jesus. As a Christian reading about Pink’s research, I feel encouraged to bring my regrets to God and receive clarity and empowerment from the Holy Spirit as I ponder my regrets in God’s presence.

Pink begins his discussion about reframing regret by mentioning two common responses to regret:

“It can be tempting to either soothe the wound of regret with self-esteem (‘You’re awesome anyway!’) or bash ourselves with self-criticism (‘You’re a worthless idiot!’). A better approach is ‘self-compassion,’ a gooey name that rests on a solid foundation of research.” [2] Pink notes that the idea of self-compassion was pioneered by University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff, who advocates that we offer ourselves the same kind of compassion we would offer to someone we care about. In a 2007 article, Neff and two co-writers say that “being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties is part of the shared human experience.”

Pink describes additional research that affirms the benefits of self-compassion, including a 2016 study where several hundred participants were asked to identify their biggest regret. Half were instructed to write letters to themselves focused on their gifts and strengths, to give themselves encouragement and build self-esteem. The other half were instructed to write letters expressing kindness and compassion to themselves. The participants who exercised self-compassion were more likely to change their behavior afterwards.

Self-compassion is a contested term among Christians. Some Christians view it as self-indulgent and too permissive. Other Christians have comfortably embraced the idea of self-compassion in the past couple of decades, as psychology researchers have advocated for it. These Christians cite “love your neighbor as yourself” as a foundational idea for a Christian form of self-compassion, grounded in God’s love for each of us as shown in Jesus. Henri Nouwen did most of his writing before “self-compassion” entered our common lexicon. I view Nouwen’s 1992 book The Life of the Beloved as an extended argument for a Christian form of self-compassion, without using that term. Instead, Nouwen uses “beloved,” and he writes that “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved’.”[3]

Perhaps Christians who don’t resonate with the term “self-compassion” are afraid it gives permission for us to be lazy and selfish. Instead, as Pink is arguing, we can face our regrets with a form of self-compassion that begins with kindness but also empowers us to change and grow. For Christians, we understand love as the foundation for change rather than condemnation. We know that as we grow, we are being transformed into Jesus’s image (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus treats us with love, yet also calls us to be our very best selves, reflecting the holiness and love of God.  

Self-compassion invites us to reframe the actions we regret into specific moments that can be forgiven and learned from, rather than events that fully define our lives. In addition, self-compassion allows us to see the choices we regret as something that other people also experience. We are human, frail and fallible beings who are also creatures of a loving God, and self-compassion enables us to reframe our regrets in that light.

I’m fascinated that when Pink describes how to “reframe your regret,” he centers his suggestions on self-compassion. I’m getting this information about his views of regret from an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, so perhaps in his book he describes other ways to reframe regrets. The Bible is full of additional helpful patterns that illustrate how to reframe how we think about the painful events of our lives. Next week I’ll write about some patterns of reframing from the Bible, relevant to our regrets. In whatever ways we reframe our regrets, a part of that process for Christians involves offering regrets to God and receiving help from God's Spirit at work within us to grow and change in response.  

(Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

Holding grief in one hand and thankfulness in the other is a helpful strategy when pondering regrets. Some posts on that topic:

[1] and [2] Daniel H. Pink, "'No regrets' is no way to live," The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2022.

[3] Henri Houwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 32.

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