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3 Tips to Help You Stop Saying Things You Regret

Woman with hand over her mouth

“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” ~Buddha

I initially saw this quote and, in true ego-first fashion, thought of my kids: this’ll be perfect for them. I’ll put it up in the kitchen as a regular reminder to stop pestering each other.

But then, something a bit deeper poked me gently. Riiight, just for the kids, is it? You’ve got this mastered, then. I guess my true self is not afraid to use sarcasm when it needs to.

My true self was right (as it always is). When I began to think about those small regrets that plague my running thoughts, so many of them came about because I didn’t adhere to the Buddha’s sage advice.

Here are a few examples that spring to mind:

The times I’ve blurted and blathered random nonsense to other parents while waiting for my kids to appear at the school gate.

The times I’ve made a negative comment about someone.

The words I’ve chosen when pestering my kids to get things done.

All my many miserable rants about the usual annoyances in life.

When I thought about it, I decided there are common themes to the things I say which I later regret. They usually fit into one of three categories:

  • I speak to avoid the discomfort of silence.
  • I speak to unload an ego-driven thought.
  • I speak with negative emotion like frustration or anger.

Let’s drill down to see where each of these breaks one of the precepts of speaking only good words.

I speak to remove the discomfort of silence.

So many times I’ve been in the presence of people when there is an uncomfortable silence and I am desperate to break it. But why? And is it really uncomfortable, or is that just me?

Inevitably, I end up speaking things that may well be true and kind, but are certainly not necessary. And I end up feeling like a blathering fool.

Speaking just for the sake of speaking doesn’t help. And sometimes it can hurt, if I’m speaking in a rush, without thinking. So, the next time I’m standing with someone and conversation isn’t flowing, I will always stop myself and ask: is this necessary?

I speak to unload an ego-driven thought.

By ego-driven, I mean a thought that makes my self-image feel bigger and better. Gossip fits well into this category. Or bragging. Complaining about a negative situation is another. (Because in the complaining, I’m pointing out what everyone else is doing wrong.)

If I speak these thoughts aloud, I usually do so with someone I can trust, like my husband, but that does not make it better. Vocalizing something negative about someone else always makes me feel worse, even if I can trust the person I’m sharing it with. It’s just not worth it.

I speak with frustration or anger.

This one’s a bit more nuanced, and often comes down to tone. Even if the words themselves are true and necessary (such as: “because you dilly dallied over breakfast, we’re now going to be late for school”), they are not kind. The unkindness often comes through in the tone, if not the words themselves.

As usual, sage advice seems so simple but is not at all easy to put into practice!

Here are some strategies to try:

1. Breathe.

Take a moment for a conscious breath before speaking. It’s an imperceptible pause, but it allows you the space to consider your comment before it is spoken. Not only does it give you space for second thought, it can somehow magically reframe the situation.

I’ve found that noticing the simple miracle of breath can cause me to see the current situation in a completely different light.

2. Respond; don’t react.

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful response and a knee-jerk reaction. Often, the knee-jerk reaction is fueled by subconscious anxieties.

Enabling yourself (via #1) to have a thoughtful response means taking control of the situation and not letting your subconscious run your life.

3. Reflect.

Use the lapses in judgment when you’ve said something regrettable to consider why you responded the way you did.

The trigger is usually only half of the problem. It’s worth considering what in ourselves, deep down, was irritated enough to strike back. Being aware of these personal vulnerabilities is what contributes to tremendous personal growth over the long run.

Ideally the transformation would occur at the level of thought, so words would never have to be checked at the door, as it were. Oh, to have only true, kind and necessary thoughts!

Until then, this quote is going up on our fridge as a regular reminder for me to tick all three boxes before speaking. I’ll take it one day at a time. (Heck, one hour at a time!) If it rubs off on the kids, all the better.

Woman holding mouth image via Shutterstock

About Lucie Wilk

Lucie Wilk is a medical doctor and author. She is committed to revitalizing the healthcare system from the ground up, educating for health empowerment. She has founded Life Suture, a website dedicated to providing people with the tools and knowledge to create healthy and fulfilled lives. You can connect on her website or twitter @lifesuture.

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  • lapis

    Yes, I hear you. I have been practicing, say if I am online on a chat, in a group, I ask myself if it is something I would say in person or not. Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, usually it fails in one or two areas. So, I try to say something uplifting instead that is true, is kind and is necessary, and yes, even it is not want the other wants to hear. Kindness and love do not equate with being abused in any way. It doesn’t make you a nice person to not know your own boundaries.

  • Deborah Koehler

    Amen!

  • Mariana Toledo

    Great article… me being an ego driven blabber, will have to work on breathing and pausing before opening my mouth. Thank you!

  • Thank you for sharing Lucie – a great message for errr…the young people in our lives. And maybe even for us. lol I know Gandhi used to practice a silent day of the week – I’m beginning to think it’s a good idea to keep quiet and just listen. I’ve become mindful of what I say but this post will guide me to do so a little more. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

  • Lucie Wilk

    Thanks, Mariana. I’m still mostly stuck on step 3 (reflect). Steps 1 and 2 are a work in progress for me!

  • Lucie Wilk

    Glad it resonated, Deborah!

  • Lucie Wilk

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lapis. Online discussions are a great forum to practice the breath and pause before responding.

  • Kasee

    At the end you say, ” this quote is going up on our fridge.” What quote? or the whole article? sorry I’m missing it.

  • Lucie Wilk

    Hi Kasee, sorry it wasn’t clear. It refers to the quote from Buddha at the top of the post. Hope that helps!

  • Lucie Wilk

    Thanks for your comments, Vishnu. I really like the idea of a regular practice of mindful silence, whether it be for a day or even an hour.

  • James H

    I wish I had known now what I didn’t know then. This is a great tool to remember. Like the saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice to someone, don’t say anything.” The tongue is the sharpest weapon that can be used to cut someone to pieces. We just need to be careful and tame our words

  • Thierry

    Another quote that as become a major guideline in my thoughts,speech and actions, something I also repeat to my kids on a daily bases:
    “If you have to choose in between being kind or being right,choose being kind, and you’ll always be right”

  • Mahesh Sahu

    Nice article, Lucci, thanks for sharing.

  • Lucie Wilk

    Thierry, I love that quote! That one’s going up on the fridge also.

  • Lucie Wilk

    Yes, this saying is another one that gets repeated in our household. Thanks for your comment, James.

  • Lucie Wilk

    Many thanks, Mahesh, and you’re welcome!

  • James H

    It was my pleasure Lucie, thank you

  • lv2terp

    BEAUTIFUL!!! Thank you for sharing your experience/reflection, and insight! 🙂

  • This is awesome! I have a big mouth and I am not afraid to say what I think. Though, there were times I regretted it. As an intuitive, sometimes, I am not aware that I am reading the person and end up saying things that wig them out. I like the separation you make between responding and reacting. Good work. Thanks!

  • Jordan

    I’ve said many things out of anger in the past that I regret very much, especially online. The fact we regret and can see that what we did was wrong shows that we aren’t bad people but instead being controlled by negative emotions.
    Me being a Wiccan, I strongly believe in a karmic system and that whatever I put out in to the world will comeback by three to me… But I suffer from depression and anxiety with bouts of neurosis so many times I unwillingly let my anger control me. I do not think deity will judge those of us who are looking for a means to control these thoughts and feelings, we are all human after all. So despite our minor discrepancies and having the tendency to fall of our paths, we aren’t the only people dealing with situations like this.

    There are many things we can do (as seen by the author, who happens to write remarkably well) but for me I wouldn’t spend the extra energy thinking about the bad we did because it will eat us away until we are nothing but husks of a being. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and many other Boddhisattva say in order to gain forgiveness and peace of mind, one must learn to forgive one’s self first. The Buddha was not without flaw in his worldly existence, he fell victim to thoughts of both anger and lust (consider the time he came from) so for us of those who are seeking spiritual enlightenment in today’s world we are bound to come in to contact with a plethora of things that will unfortunately sway us from our real-self (especially if you hold strong opinions and views about something).
    As we walk this path to enlightenment, we must never forget the lessons learned in regret. If you regret something you did, and you show remorse… Then you are not the negative person you may make yourself out to seem! Try not to do it again but if you do, remember how you felt the last time.
    If your problems lay within the Internet or other material objects that won’t seem to ever go away, just remember we all have done some pretty ignorant things in the past and there are people who do it WITHOUT regret. So it speaks wonders for those of us who try to forgive ourselves and move on.

    Don’t beat yourself up my friends, take the authors advice and find a system that will ultimately benefit you in the long run.

    Merry Meet and Merry Part,
    Jordan

  • LaTrice Dowe

    People don’t take the time to understand that words to hurt. Unfortunately, those words can’t be taken back. I know I’ve had my moments, but if someone infuriates me, I’ll walk away. To me, it’s the right thing to do.

    Thank you, Lucie, for writing an excellent article.

  • Jay Alvarez

    Thank you I appreciate you so much, great work!

  • no

    is any advice here really new to peel meI always say the wrong thing no matter how much I stop and think about it first and no matter how much reflecting I did after the last time I opened my mouth.