Taking 12 Steps to Release Regret

Four months after a painful discovery that had me trying to figure out the status and history of my most intimate relationship I discovered a 12 Step group for people with codependent tendencies. I have learned so much from the experiences of the courageous people in the rooms. Along the way I discovered the 12 steps provide a helpful framework for processing big emotions and troubling situations. 

Lately I found myself struggling with the combination of post-traumatic stress and regret. In addition to triggers, intrusive memories, and physical symptoms of stress I find myself reviewing the past from a new perspective... and wishing I could go back knowing what I know now. Several times I have caught myself longing to go back and do things different, to be different. It's a strange form of "survivors guilt". How could I get free of this emotional quicksand?

Image of statue's feet standing on disk with inscription about regret

After a few days of working my self-care program, going to meetings, talking to my sponsor and trusted helping professionals I decided I would blast through the 12 steps in a couple hours. I focused on issue of regrets and was blessed with several moments of clarity and an increasing sense of hope. 

As part of my own healing and service to you, I offer the outcome of my step session below.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over _____________, that our lives had become unmanageable.

I admit it! I am utterly powerless over the past and my life has become unmanageable under the weight of regret. 

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I did not know how to process anxiety, pain, and grief. So I soldiered on… into insanity. The only real solution I can see is to ask God to forgive me for the pain I have caused myself and the harm done to others. To ask God to take the weight of this guilt and regret from me. To remove this crushing yoke of iron I have fashioned for myself. 

I believe only God can restore me to sanity.

Step 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

God, I am being crushed with the weight of my regret. Some of this regret is true-guilt and some is false-guilt. I have made my life unmanageable. In my dysfunctional attempts to cope I created an environment around me that was emotionally unsafe for people. I was intolerant of my own uncomfortable emotions, flaws, inability, and failures; and didn’t tolerate these in others. 

I have been gripped by fear of humiliation and fear of economic uncertainties. I am prone to hustle to maintain an image of competence and confidence. I have been harsh and demanding. I have not dealt tenderly with my own heart or the hearts of my loved ones.

Please forgive me. This guilt and regret are robbing me of the joy and freedom that exist when I am surrendered in your presence. Please heal me, remove this guilt from me. Show me how to make amends to myself and to those I love. 

Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

I see now that several defects have been contributing to my insanity and dysfunction:
  • FEAR of humiliation and economic uncertainty
  • HUSTLING by acting heroically to save the day, either resolving the situation or drawing attention away from it
  • RECRUITING by pressuring others to also take heroic responsibilities in impossible situations
  • EXCUSING/POSING by trying to shape perceptions of me and preserve my reputation
  • SELF-LOATHING when I fail to resolve situations, make them worse, or get a fresh glimpse of the carnage I’ve left in my wake

Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I admit that I have believed lies and allowed them to drive my thinking, emotions, and behaviors. I have believed, “I won’t survive humiliation, that will be fatal.” I have viewed economic and relationship failure as humiliating, therefore fatal. I have viewed surprises and embarrassment as humiliating, therefore fatal. I have gone to great lengths to try to limit my exposure to risk of humiliation, even hijacking other people's responsibilities.  The truth is God is with me in humiliation, I often sense his presence even more during times of discomfort and pain. If God is with me in humiliation I can survive it.

I have believed that, “It’s all up to me. If I want to be loved I must be wise and take initiative. I must take heroic responsibility to earn acceptance. I must be indispensable to belong.” I have overwhelmed myself with responsibilities and lost sight of the fact that you alone are God, I am not. The truth is God alone is sovereign. It's actually good for my world that I am not God!

Step 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Fear of humiliation has made me intolerant of failure, unreliability, uncertainty, surprises, and embarrassment. It’s made me overly serious, rigid, and responsible. My fear and hyper-vigilance have robbed me of the ability to be “fun to play with”. I have injured my loved ones with my rigidness.

The belief that I must be wise and take heroic responsibility in order to earn love has damaged my relationships with my wife and sons; robbed them of my playfulness; and stolen growth opportunities from all of us. It’s made them feel incompetent. It's disenfranchised them. It’s made me resentful and critical when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility, especially when it looks like they aren’t pulling their own weight.

I hate these defects in me and the damage they have caused.

Step 7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

God, forgive me for my lack of faith in your sovereignty, goodness, and faithfulness. Forgive me for entangling myself in fear of humiliation and for believing that I have to be wise and heroic to earn love. Forgive me for trying to earn grace. Forgive me for not trusting your faithful provision and thinking I have to take responsibility for outcomes. Forgive me for being harsh and judgmental toward myself, my family, and colleagues. Please remove these defects of fear and misplaced responsibility. Destroy the roots of unbelief and pride that nourish these defects in me.

Please replace my fear of humiliation with faith and hope in your sovereignty, goodness, faithfulness, and acceptance. Please remove my arrogance and presumptuous instincts to be over-responsible; these often have me taking on responsibilities that are not mine and robbing people of opportunities to learn and grow. Please replace my arrogance with faith in your gracious acceptance and sovereign providence. Remind me that you are at work in other people too. Keep short accounts with me, be quick to remind me that you are God and I am not.

Step 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

I have offended God by acting like I’m God. I have hurt myself by heaping up anxieties, fears, responsibilities, and unresolved resentments. I have hurt myself, my family, and colleagues by being harsh, critical, and relentless.

Step 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

I will begin with God and then make amends with myself before moving on to family and colleagues.

God, I have humbly approached in repentance, seeking the forgiveness you promise to all who will humble themselves before you. Thank you for removing my guilt. Please grant me courage to live as one freed from shackles as a living testament to your mercy and sovereign grace.

Self, I have overloaded you with the burden of being the savior of our world, heaped up unreasonable expectations and responsibilities, provided no margin, left your big emotions unprocessed, allowed resentments to fester, left boundaries unenforced, and robbed you of fun, joy, and relationship. 

I have been forgiven, I release myself for not knowing how to process my emotions before now. I release myself for lacking awareness of the lies that have been driving my dysfunctional coping mechanisms until now. I release myself for not understanding healthy boundaries until recently. 

I will make living amends to myself, and all those I have hurt, by learning to process my emotions, maintaining healthy boundaries, and growing my faith in God’s sovereignty, goodness, and faithfulness. I will train myself to entrust myself to God’s care and gracious acceptance. I will discipline myself to listen for God’s voice, wait for his timing, and follow His lead.

Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

I commit to revisiting this post and the prayers it contains 2-3 times over the next several days.

Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

God thank you for graciously forgiving me.  Please heal the wounds I have created for myself and others. Please teach my sons to process their emotions before they reach their twenties. Provide healthy and safe people to shepherd their emotional growth. Please heal my former wife of the emotional wounds I contributed through lack of empathy and failing to provide tender care for emotional needs. As for me, God, grow my emotional maturity. Lead me in the path I should take for making amends with those I have harmed. I trust your will and your timing in my life. Grant me courage to join you on the path of your will.

Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives.

I will share this part of my journey by posting this to my 12 step group and on my blog. I will continue to pray for those I have harmed and pray that others are somehow blessed by my experience.

Postscript: It seems to me that the antidote for true-guilt is repentance and forgiveness, while the antidote for false-guilt is clear boundaries and sober reality. Distinguishing true-guilt from false-guilt requires discernment. Note to self: Get wisdom and humility, get free from guilt.

-Steve M


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