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Receptivity and offering: Some options for reframing regrets

Lynne Baab • Friday February 25 2022

Receptivity and offering: Some options for reframing regrets

I regret that I disciplined my kids too harshly when they were toddlers and preschoolers. That regret has motivated me to be gentle with them as adults. I still grieve that harsh discipline, and I still sometimes feel shame about it, but I can now see that those regrets have made me a better mother of adult sons.

Before I wrote last week’s blog post about reframing regrets, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I have felt ashamed, but I hadn’t realized how deeply my regrets have shaped my behavior in good ways for the past two decades as my sons reached adulthood. I’m drawing on the work of Daniel H. Pink who argues that facing into our regrets, rather than denying them, teaches us and empowers us. He argues that a helpful part of the process is reframing regrets. Last week I wrote about his suggestion that we exercise self-compassion as a part of reframing regrets.

As a Christian, I also want to argue that when there is a sinful component to the things we regret, confession of sin must be a part of the process of learning from our regrets, and equally essential is gratefully accepting that God creates clean hearts within us and puts a new and right spirit in us, too (Psalm 51:10). Part of the process of reframing regrets, if there is sin involved, is to rejoice in those clean hearts and right spirits that God gives us. I have observed in myself and others that sometimes part of the way we process regrets is to wallow in them, rather than accepting forgiveness and trying to learn from what we have done. Part of reframing regrets has to include doing our best to receive forgiveness.

Another biblical component of reframing regrets involves focusing on what matters. We can look honestly at our regrets and ask what they might teach us about how to do a better job engaging with God’s priorities.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Without being able to articulate it clearly, that’s what I did with my regrets about my harsh discipline of my sons. I felt awful about being mean, and in response, I tried to embrace kindness and humility.

Another biblical aspect of reframing regrets involves how we think about them, and what words we use to describe them. I wrote several weeks ago about research indicating that our words actually shape the neural pathways in our brains. Here are two ways I might talk about my discipline patterns with my kids: “I feel so much shame about my harsh spanking of my kids. It was awful for them and scarred them.” “I feel sadness about the way I disciplined my kids. I have apologized to them, and I have tried to show them kindness since them.” The first sentence reinforces the neural pathways related to these words: harsh, spanking, awful, and scarred. The second sentence reinforces these pathways: sadness, apologized, tried, kindness. Maybe some readers will think that the second sentence is a form of denial, but I think the second sentence is just as true as the first sentence, a choice to describe what has been life-giving rather than focusing only on the negative components.

When I posted on Facebook an article about the research on neural pathways, one of my friends commented, “Paul seemed to have known a thing or two,” and she cited Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Part of how we reframe regrets is to focus on what we have learned from them – the pleasing and commendable outcomes, worthy of praise – rather than dwelling only on the negative. Yes, God invites us to bring our emotions of sadness and grief to God. We know those feelings are important to God, but our thoughts about how awful we were are something entirely different. Next week I’ll discuss how to separate our thoughts from our feelings related to regret, and why that matters.

As we attempt to reframe our regrets, we offer our confessions of sin to God, and we receive God’s forgiveness. We offer to God our willingness to focus on God’s priorities of justice, kindness, and humble walking with God. In return, we receive the ability to focus on something beyond our obsession with our own regrets. We receive God’s love, and in response we are able to offer words to God, ourselves, and others that focus on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. These are all part of how we reframe our regrets so we can learn from them and let them give us power to live in love.

(Next week: reframing regrets by separating thoughts from feelings. Illustration by Dave Baab: the Waters of Leith, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other is a helpful strategy related to regrets. My book on that subject has just been released as an audiobook on Audible (coming soon on iTunes and other platforms). Some blot posts on grief and gratitude:

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