Does your mind ever get stuck on something you’ve regretfully said or didn’t say?
When I was a child, I’d occasionally overhear someone dear to me having talks with herself. Half the time she’d speak under her breath, so I’d catch only the gist of what she was saying:
“So, I said [muffled speech] … and she said [more muffled speech].”
I’d pick up enough to realize she was rehashing a conversation that had left her frustrated. I’d always wonder, What is the point of getting upset, wishing you’d said something else in the moment, when it’s all over?
Since then, I have learned the difference between ruminating over words exchanged in the past and revisiting them for a constructive reason.
I’ve also learned that you can alter what you said (or didn’t) for the record.
Yes, we all possess the remarkable power to rewrite history, even when people involved have moved on in one or two ways:
1) Mentally – They’ve forgotten or no longer care.
2) Physically – They’re unattainable for any reason (missing, unwilling to connect, no longer living, etc.)
To demonstrate, I’m revealing a personal story. Sharing this one is not easy, but it’s a good example of how to review and revise rather than ruminate.
My Thanksgiving Tantrum
Every adult present who is still alive—my siblings and our spouses—can remember the incident that occurred during our family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
With all of us gathered around my parents’ table, a disagreement erupted between another person and me over a hot political topic. Our views clashed. Ironically, if the two of us discussed the same matter today, we’d likely have similar perspectives. (That insight alone is worth noting.)
Although we were both strongheaded, I was younger (in my 20s) and less confident than my unrelenting opponent. Unaccustomed to such debates, I felt attacked. If the others there couldn’t see my heart pounding through my clothes, they must have witnessed my beet-red face. My husband said the veins in my neck were protruding. Furious and afraid I would lose control and say something I’d regret, I rose from my chair and announced I was taking a walk.
I heard my mother saying, “Oh, Sallie, don’t leave!” or something of that nature. I also have a vague recollection of others chiming in. In the midst of it all, I vividly remember looking across the table and locking eyes with my father. I’ll never forget his expression of disappointment and sadness.
A walk around the block helped me cool down, and they all welcomed me back as if nothing had happened. Still, I’d conjured a cloud of resentment and awkwardness that lingered. While people say, “It takes two to tango,” I knew I shouldn’t have let it happen and had no one to blame but myself. Being responsible for that look on my father’s face is among my greatest regrets.
My father grew ill and passed away before presiding over another family Thanksgiving dinner, so you could say I’d lost any chance for a do over.
However, what if I returned to the past to rewrite it as a present-day event? Here’s how:
1. Mentally revisiting the event, I change what I say/do and envision a positive outcome.
• “Let’s talk about [fill in the blank] instead.”
• “Excuse me,” I say, leaving the table, “I need to grab [X] from the kitchen. Need anything?” Upon returning, I immediately direct my attention to someone else.
2. From rewriting the script, I can acknowledge what I’ve learned and forgive myself. I’m also better equipped to choose what I say (or don’t) in the future. Potentially, I can further use my insights to influence others in a positive way.
• This actually happened many years later. During a special family gathering, a controversial (political) topic came up. If the exchange had continued, the tone would have turned sour and ruined the occasion. By recounting my last Thanksgiving at my father’s table, I was able to provide perspectives that ended the discussion then. If we deemed it worthwhile, we could revisit the topic at a better time.
• I’ve also realized that nothing good will come from “going there” with certain people, especially if my relationships with them matter more than speaking my mind.
To be clear, nonetheless, rewriting the past sometimes demands speaking out, not stewing or quivering in silence.
Time and reflection produce insights that help us explain, reconcile, convince, gain peace of mind, etc. In other words, we can learn and grow to accomplish all sorts of objectives in the present.
Yes, we are always capable of revising our stories-in-the-making until taking that last breath in the end.
My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady
Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at https://WriteLady.com.