As long as you are living and breathing on this planet, you are guaranteed to face regret.
To regret something is to “feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).” To be ‘repentant’ means to wish that you could go back in time to the moment when the regretful incident happened – and make an alternate choice.
I think of regret as death’s first cousin. Regret doesn’t respect age, race, nationality or a person’s favourite ice cream flavour. It comes as a consequence of things you don’t have full control over and lingers in the shadows of darkness in the corners of your soul. (Ok that was dramatic. I think I’ve made my point).
Regret brings along a host of friends: disappointment, guilt, shame, embarrassment and fear. If we don’t learn how to wrestle with it in a healthy way – and win – regret will always be a handicap in our lives.
Identifying the causes of regret
At the basis of regret is that the outer world is not lining up with expectations of your inner world. Disappointment at the realities of our past can haunt us and limit our freedom to live in the world the way that we know we can.
Think about the things that you’ve been regretting over the past few months. What comes up as a constant theme?
1. Bad things that other people did to you: Is there something that happened to you when you were younger, that you couldn’t really control, that you still blame yourself for? Maybe you’re tormented with questions like: ‘Why didn’t I tell someone?’, ‘Why did I go there’, ‘I should’ve…’ Ruminating on all the ways that you could have changed the situation is hampering your confidence to make decisions in the present. If you have not sought professional help to deal with the psychological and emotional hurts that were inflicted on you by others, then you are keeping yourself in a private prison. Get the help you need. You deserve to live a whole, free, full life.
2. Bad decisions that hurt you: Sometimes, we unknowingly cooperate with others in perpetuating a negative reality. We don’t always have all the foresight and life experience that will enable us to make better decisions and then we get stuck (sometimes for years) in relationships or places that keep us from living authentically. When we finally escape that limiting reality and have taken time to heal, looking back on the wasted time can cause feelings of regret at what could’ve been. You also can’t help feeling like an idiot for what now (thanks to hindsight) is extremely obvious to you.
3. Actions you took that hurt others: This is a tough one. It’s easier to live life upset at the evil people who mess up the lives of others. But what happens what that person is you? It is extremely difficult to reconcile yourself with the notion of yourself as a “good person”, knowing that there were actions that you took that directly affected others negatively. You may not have intended that as a consequence but there is no way of disputing that you have caused pain to someone else. The redeeming aspect of this kind of regret is that you realise that people are fallible (yes even you!) and it helps you to have a deeper level of understanding. It might make it easier for you to forgive someone else for what they did to you because maybe they too didn’t intend for the bad consequence and we just doing their best. Remember that we judge others by their actions but we judge ourselves by our intentions.
4. Wishing you’d made a different choice: We all have cringe-worthy actions that we prefer no one ever knew about. Just this week, one of my major regrets came back to me, taunting me for the silly fool that I was. Instead of just giving into the usual self-pity and self-inflicted internal flogging, I pictured taking that regret by the neck (like lionesses grab their cubs) and looking it in the eye.
Yes I should never have done what I did, yes I hated the person I was at the time when I made that decision and yes, if I could go back in time to the moment when things went the wrong way and drag myself out of that moment, I would. But I can’t undo what was done. I can’t magically reverse my mistake. What I can do – and what I have to do each time this memory comes up, is to remind myself that the person I am now would never made the same decision today. So as ugly and painful as that regrettable time in my life was, it has taught me a lot about life, vulnerability and strength. You can only make better choices when you are strong enough and healthy enough to choose the things that will build you up, not break you down. We can choose to stay stuck in a private prison of regret or we can live uncaged. We hold the keys to our freedom.
Understand the spectrum of regret
Not all regret is necessary negative. There is a spectrum of regret that we need to learn to navigate. A spectrum is defined as “any range or scale, as of capabilities, emotions, or moods.”
Regretting something you did in high school is not as painful to remember as when you messed up a project at work last week. From saying something stupid to the person you have a crush on to a bad decision or the consequences of a character flaw, regret can become a tool for transformation. If we learn how to use it.
With the first two sources of regret, it will not help us to marinate in the stew of “why did this happen to me?” Staying fixated on things you can’t change is not helpful and will only keep you stuck.
Regret can help you learn from the actions and behaviours that are in your control (the second two sources). Sometimes a careless action, done in a moment of haste, can be easily rectified by a heartfelt apology.
Other things, like a prolonged pattern of behaviour in crucial areas like career development and relationships, take a little longer to rectify. In order to fix my flawed default emotional and psychological patterns of engagement, has taken a long time (and it is still a work in progress).
I use all the tools of personal development at my disposal (spiritual practices, mental techniques, journalling and reflection etc) to strengthen a growth mindset. But I need to be intentional about it.
When I feel the twinge of regret pinch at the corners of my conscience, I am learning how to place it upon the regret spectrum.
- Invest in your now: When something new comes up into my self awareness about the way I responded to someone, or a silent thought that I have that is not entirely positive, this internal checklist usually helps:
- Is this something I can change?
- If no, I focus on the things that are within my power to control.
- If yes, I consider the steps that I need to take to practise a new course of action the next time a similar situation arises.
- Celebrate the growth: If a long-standing regret from a painful period of my life rears its ugly head, I take a moment to feed in a new narrative. You have to build new tapes to drown out the old ones. I interject the taunting “see how hopeless you were with “Thank goodness I’m not that person anymore” or “Thank God I never have to see those people ever again.”
- Let go of the minutia: Sometimes, it’s just a simple ‘I wish I said that this instead of not saying anything to that person in that situation.’ Alas, the moment is gone and it doesn’t help to ruminate. I usually just tell myself to let it go and move on with my life.
- Pay the price to get the life you want: If there are specific limiting behavioural patterns that I keep picking up (like talking myself out of going to gym more times than my feet actually make it on the treadmill, then more drastic measures have to be taken to get myself out of a rut (like finally signing up with a personal trainer). Less insanity (going the same things and expecting different results) and more proactive challenges.
The better you get with dealing with regret today, the less regret you will have to deal with as you get older.
We’ve all read about studies done on people in their death beds. The things we will regret at the end of our lives will be not enjoying or fully appreciating the things that money can’t buy. Things like friendship, family, genuine love, joy, peace of mind, meaningful conversations (etc, etc).
We’re gifted with life. Only we can decide whether we will cherish the present. The antidote to regret is gratitude.
Are there any regrets that you just can’t seem to let go of? Share your comments below.