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Regret and Her Horrible Twin, Guilt: A Parable about a Hidden Force that May Be Keeping You Stuck

While there's always room for improvement, toddlers fall down many times before becoming proficient at walking. They may cry but they don't feel ashamed. Instead they get up, make adjustments, and try again.
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If you made a New Year's resolution, you've probably met one of the two sisters: Regret or her horrible twin, Guilt. These sisters look a lot alike but they are very different.

When Regret makes a mistake she cries, "Oh, I wish I hadn't done that!" or "Why did I do that?" or "I'm never doing that again!"

But when Guilt makes a mistake she yells, "You idiot, you blew it again!" or "You are such a loser -- what's the matter with you?" or "You might as well give up. You're never going to get it right."

Regret makes mistakes all the time. She figures that everybody does, especially when they're learning something new. Regret doesn't even really seem to mind making mistakes because she always learns something that helps her do things a little differently the next time. She even laughs at herself and shares her mistakes with others so they'll learn too. She doesn't care that other people sometimes do things better -- but she wants to be the best she can be so she never gives up trying.

Of course, Guilt makes mistakes too but she blames herself because she believes she should know better. Instead of helping her learn, her mistakes just prove that she is a bad person and that something is wrong with her. She is often angry with herself and sometimes other people. Secretly, she feels unloved and unworthy so with every mistake she resolves to do things perfectly the next time to prove to everyone else that she is good enough.

On New Year's Day, Regret and Guilt agreed that it was time to make some lifestyle changes. Regret regretted that her energy level was low and she wasn't able to do all of the things she wanted. Guilt felt bad too -- guilty that she was "too fat and lazy."

Like most people, Regret had been on dozens of diets and knew they just didn't work for her. She decided that this time she would make small changes to the way she ate. She started by paying more attention to her hunger and fullness cues. It sounded simple enough but it wasn't as easy as she thought, especially when someone brought donuts to the office. After two days of eating donuts mid-morning, she realized she needed to make a plan. She gave herself extra time in the morning to have breakfast and pack lunch. She also made a list of other things she could do when the donuts were calling her. She continually tweaked her plan to figure out what worked the best and congratulated herself on her small successes.

A few days into it, she had a really stressful day at work and was thrilled when she remembered that it was her co-worker's birthday because that meant cake! She wasn't hungry but had a piece of the delicious chocolate cake while she celebrated with her friend... then went back for another piece after everyone else returned to their desks. Within an hour she noticed she felt tired and a little sick -- but still stressed out. Regret regretted her decision to have the second piece of cake -- but not the first! She decided that next time she felt stressed she would take a short walk instead of going back for more.

Guilt liked the idea of using hunger and fullness, too -- but she had failed on so many diets that she doubted she would do any better with this approach. She told herself that this was her last chance to get it right so every time she felt like eating she made sure she was hungry first. She felt great because she was doing it perfectly!

After a week of only eating when she was hungry, disaster struck. She had already eaten most of her lunch at her desk when a co-worker showed up with cake. She had a piece even though she wasn't hungry. Within a few minutes she was berating herself for her terrible mistake, telling herself that she had failed at this, too -- just like she thought she would. She gave up and went back for a second piece. She felt so bad about herself that she picked up a pizza and ice cream on the way home. After all, she couldn't even get this right so what was the point?

Although Guilt was well intentioned, her unrealistic expectations and the shame and blame she heaped on herself were preventing her from learning, improving, and forgiving herself when she made choices that didn't work out well. She even felt guilty for feeling guilty!

She finally asked her sister for help. Regret explained that while there's always room for improvement, toddlers fall down many times before becoming proficient at walking. They may cry but they don't feel ashamed. Instead they get up, make adjustments, and try again. Her favorite words of wisdom:
  • Perfection is not possible -- or necessary.
  • When you make a mistake, don't miss the lesson.
  • Small changes slowly add up to big changes.
Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training