Regrets come in all shapes and sizes. In all sorts of places and times. As in the day we got angry with our spouse, partner, child, or friend for no good reason. Or the time we failed to make peace with our mother before she died. For our hypocrisy in violating our closely held moral beliefs. For walking away from a stranger or even a friend in need. For raging at another driver who inadvertently cut us off in traffic. For splurging on sugary sweets last weekend. Buying frivolous things online yesterday. Not studying enough for an important upcoming test. Dropping out of college. Or failing to enroll in the first place. We regret the things we should have done but didn’t do. And doing the things we shouldn’t have. Not just our actions or inactions. But for what these regrets say about us as people, as well. Writer and poet David Whyte says this about the human condition:
“To admit regret is to understand that we are fallible… to lose control of not only a difficult past but of the very story we tell about our present.”
Whyte is disarmingly honest in his assessment. He’s a realist. We should be too. For experiencing regret is part of our past and present. Part of living, really. It’s a component of our very DNA as vulnerable, imperfect, and sometimes illogical beings. Not just for a few unlucky souls among us. But, rather, for nearly all of us. A recent global World Regret Study indicates that over 80% of survey respondents acknowledge having significant regrets in life. As many as 2 in 10 respondents state that they feel regret chronically.
What is Regret?
For want of a better definition, human regret is an abiding sense of ‘disappointment’. It has both cognitive (thinking) and emotional (feeling) elements. First, regret centers on the cognitively perceived gap between what actually happened versus what should have happened. Between the alternative that we chose and the one we should have ultimately chosen– where we subsequently come to realize that the one chosen was sub-optimal. Second, regret can generate follow-on, negative feelings as we internalize our regretted behaviors. Powerful feelings of pain, remorse, sadness, emotional paralysis, irritability, self-absorbed shame, or abusive self-hate. Given this, it’s tempting to wish we had no regrets in life. Yet that would steal our individual free will and associated self-agency. And, in turn, would be a terribly isolating, maladaptive way to live.
Even more importantly, regret isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has some admittedly demonstrable value. We should want to be and to do better in life. When we fail with someone or at something, we should feel some regret. We should aim for greater self-understanding and insights. Should strive to fix the situation. Should aim to prevent further judgment lapses, missteps, and misdeeds. Should work toward greater harmony at home, in our jobs, in our communities, and around the world. We should learn from our past and apply these lessons in the future. Doing so is essential for human survival. Crucial for our ongoing evolution as a human species on earth. It’s a matter of progress– part of appropriately channeling regret into positive change and development.
Managing our Regrets: The Well-Worn Path
What can we do to cope with the inevitable regret that accompanies us in life? There’s no shortage of wisdom available for those seeking practical self-help tools. Behavioral scientists tell us to start by better regulating our feelings. They recommend that we stop consuming ourselves with regret. That we avoid ceaseless rumination around ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ (would-a/could-a/should-a) scenarios in our heads as we reflect on our past actions. We can also reduce the degree to which we exaggerate the actual missteps we made or our direct responsibility for them. In other words, we can put the regretted situation in a broader context by considering the many circumstances that mitigated against a better outcome. For it’s not totally on us in most circumstances. Life is complicated and nuanced. It usually takes two (or even more) to tango, as they say.
And that’s not all. Oftentimes, we can take something positive from our regrets. Especially when we honestly acknowledge our past actions. This can spur important discernment, self-discovery, self-understanding, and growth on our part. To ensure that we don’t do the same unfortunate things repeatedly. But let’s be honest about the limitations of this. In certain instances, there’s little insight to be gained. We must let it go. There’s no way to shine a kinder, contextual light on the situation. We’ve simply made a terrible, unthinkable mistake. One that cannot be undone or ever rectified. It’s a train wreck with little or nothing to learn from it except this: ‘What could I have possibly been thinking?’. Our endless rumination is therefore fruitless. We’ve totally messed up and we need to move on. However, before doing this, we should make amends to those we’ve hurt. Apologize immediately and sincerely. Demonstrate authentic remorse to the offended persons. And make some measure of restitution wherever possible.
The approaches above provide credible strategies to manage our regrets. They focus largely on cognitive-based behaviors that we can modify and the associated feelings that accompany these behaviors. But I propose going deeper. And recommend another way for your consideration. This way is grounded in being more fully ‘present’ with our regrets, not just responding to them.
Resist Emotional Dualisms
It begins with reframing our conscious awareness around regrets. Far too many of us are captive to subconscious, ego-driven, and dualism-grounded mindsets of ‘emotional ping pong’. This means that we often careen between feeling polarities that only feed further regret in our lives. We dwell on the opposite ends of an emotional spectrum: our hopes versus our fears; our innocence versus our guilt; and our perfection versus our failures. We chase the good side of the spectrum every day, even as we even more aggressively resist the bad side. When we invariably miss the mark on hope, innocence, and perfection at times, we too easily slide headlong into the opposite abiding feelings of fear, guilt, and failure. Our subconscious egos usually take this as their cue to race to the ‘rescue’. And hastily overreact in order to compensate. This invariably leads to more, not less, regret in the end. That’s because our instantaneous, corrective reactions are fed by the same unconscious, ego-driven mechanisms that caused the unhealthy regret in the first place. It’s a vicious, illogical, and counterproductive cycle. It’s crucial for us to understand that we don’t have to engage in this. Being in better touch with ourselves is a good starting point for reducing unnecessary guilt.
Break Unhealthy Thinking
There’s an old philosophical adage that says, “I think. Therefore, I am.” I’ll offer a provocative counter-thought to that, “I think. Therefore, I’m wrong.” To be clear, I’m not suggesting that thinking is inherently problematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. But, far too often, we suppress our feelings of regret as quickly as possible in order to get on with a mind-based ‘fix’ to the underlying problem. We’re obsessed with thinking our way out of things. Instead of remaining ‘present’ with regrets, we strive to evade or push our feelings away. We resist sitting quietly and meditatively with our regrets for a while. We fail to thoughtfully explore our feelings. Fail to reach inward to gently touch these feelings with a spirit of tenderness– either on our own or with external support, as needed. This means that we allow our ‘hearts’ to take a backseat to our ‘heads’. The absence of self-tenderness and self-care invariably leads to internal spiritual hardness. One that metastasizes and then projects itself outward. What we regret (and reject) about ourselves is often projected onto others. It’s harmfully contagious.
Thankfully, there’s another way. When we replace our exclusively thinking-based ‘fix-it’ approach with a more patient and kind ‘presence’ with our regrets, we can surrender our individual power and control needs. We can freely acknowledge our inherent fallibility and imperfection as human beings. In turn, we can enter into a greater acceptance of who we are. This acceptance doesn’t mean that we quit trying to develop and improve. Rather, it signifies that all sustainable self-growth must be grounded in our humility. Humility brings inner peace. And only peace can create needed, safer spaces for curiosity, wisdom-seeking, learning, and growth to occur in us.
In the end, the burden of regret is often unnecessary, unreasonable, and paralyzing. It doesn’t have to be this way in our lives. Because, ultimately, we don’t have to be perfect as a prerequisite to being happy with ourselves. In truth, we’re all works of art in progress. But works of art, nonetheless. The great historical artist Michelangelo once said this:
“A sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there; I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
Michelangelo believed that priceless art never, ever begins from nothing. It never starts with a nondescript block of stone upon which we subsequently create something. Instead, the sculpture is already there, housed within the block. It need only be made visible and revealed. The same can be said about us as human beings. We’re never nothing at the start either. Our beautiful, sacred souls were always there. Born of a loving, grace-filled God who created us. As such, our job is to continuously carve away and discard the superfluous pieces that surround us. To make visible and more fully reveal the unfolding wonder of who we are. We’re never perfect or fully finished works of human art, but we’re still beautiful to behold.
What if each of us started chipping away some of the superfluous, unhealthy, and unnecessary pieces in our own lives today? We can begin by turning our many regrets into far fewer ones. Our lasting regrets into passing ones. And our big regrets into small ones…