by Pam England
“It may be that what you could be haunts you. It is a weight you … carry around. Each failure to become, to be, is a weight.― Ben Okri, Nigerian poet, author
Many storytellers begin their story session under the weight of regret and self-blame for something that happened or did not happen when they gave birth. Some mothers regret not being able to welcome their baby as they dreamed they would, others confuse giving legal consent for medical treatment with “choosing” the intervention or the conditions that prompted it. Regret is paired with the discovery of some little bit of information we discover after the fact, from which we compare what happened to what could have been if only we had known that “bit” before. We use our new knowledge against ourselves when we judge the plan or decision we made before knowing it! Self-blame or self-doubt turns into negative beliefs, e.g., “I failed, I am a failure. I should have known better. I am a terrible mother; I was not there for my baby. My baby thinks I abandoned him. I should have been able to create My birth the way I wanted it to be.“
Those who invest trust in misguiding modern declarations that they can choose their birth experience (so, choose wisely!) and that they have intentional power over the nature of birth, when the unexpected happens—as it often does in rites of passage—are subject to swing from craving empowerment to wallowing in self-blame for not preparing more, for not making “right” decisions, et cetera, then grieve the loss of their fantasy and bragging rights.
Which part of us makes up this story and beats us up with it?
The inner-Judge, the forever seven-year-old Judge-Child whose positive intention is to convince you that you are still not a good enough human just as you are, that “you must try harder, learn more, make better decisions, be nicer … [fill in the blank]_____ to be worthy, respected, loved. If you get it “right,” you will have the life, and the birth experience, and the relationships, health, and job — you want.
Begin to notice when an undesirable consequence follows a decision you made or something you did, if your angst is intolerable, you probably believe two things: first, that the decision or action and the outcome are unequivocally related, and second, that the decision or action itself reflects a personal flaw or failure. So, for example in a birth story session, when a mother is disappointed in the outcome and she reasons, “I should have studied more,” “I should have prepared more,” with the unspoken implication being, “then I would have made the right decision and none of [this] would have happened.”
In her 2011 TED talk, Kathryn Schultz describes how “almost having achieved” a goal can aggravate regret far more than a situation where the desired outcome was unlikely to happen short of a miracle. The closer we are to achieving a goal, the more likely we are to imagine one little thing that might have made the difference and led to a preferred outcome. Ruminating about alternative outcomes compounds the suffering of lingering regret, disappointment, and loss.
What is the Story Medicine for Regret?
Within oneself: Awareness. While examining the painful emotion of regret, I watched how subtly regret took hold and tried to notice when it first began in my self-talk. I saw how mercilessly I believe and use this voice of the Judge to go against my Self. It’s exciting to notice the first loop of a regret story on the story-crochet hook, which allows me to stop the spin immediately.
Be mindful not to let your inner Judge “should” on you, commanding you to not feel regret—with the oblique aim of being more conscious, more self-accepting. Can you see this trap? Just be awake and aware. See the learned mind pattern—that’s all it is. Then, truly acknowledge that based on everything you had lived and knew up to that moment, and influenced by seen and unseen circumstances, you did what you did. And life goes on.
When the choice we made leads to a challenge, hardship, we think we made the wrong choice. So, I also began to consider the hidden learnings or benefits in having to work through something messy, or having to do the one forbidden thing.
To lift the weight of regret from the storyteller. How is this done? Try a counterintuitive approach: Begin with no story to stop the mind from spinning, to stop the internal conflict between self and other blame, or between self-judgment and self-defense. Be here now. Sit quietly in a peaceful space, listen to music; walk in beauty. Regret stories make us look backwards while trying to move forward. So, orient your direction to Now and North. Be here now.
A rushed, detailed storytelling, that explains and defends, spins and excites the mind. So, put a frame around the part that is related to the regret, and describe only what happened; it should be small enough to fit in a Thimble. Then stop. And listen within. Breathe. Feel the weight of the Thimble story. Regret is always a story from the past, it is a telling that goes backwards.
Kathryn Schulz, journalist and author, 2011 TED Talk:
All rights reserved. Copyright Pam England/Birth Story Medicine Aug 2022. No reproduction without written permission.