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No matter how much you regret something or worry about what happened, the past is over. You can’t change a thing, it’s gone. But you can come to terms with the fact that everything happens for a reason. Live in the present where you have the options to restore calm to your heart!
“Your past has given you the strength and wisdom you have today, so celebrate it. Don’t let it haunt you.” – Unknown
What does it mean to regret?
Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.
Most times regret can be all-consuming, and it can destroy lives. We can see it all around us, whether it is the man who cannot forgive himself for cheating on his first girlfriend and has not had a serious relationship in 30 years. Or the woman who is so tied up in wishing she’d had a child with her ex-partner, instead of breaking up with him, that she cannot find happiness in her current circumstances.
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Isn’t that the truth?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. We aren’t meant to know the future, or have back to the Future like powers, and rewind to the past. However, often times it feels like our brain and our hearts live like as if we do have these abilities- keeping us stuck, with guilt, shame and regret, ultimately, experiencing the pain of regret, without turning the experience into something productive.
Imagine this, you’re at a Beach party where every person there is a past version of yourself. There’s a children’s play area with all the little kid form of yourself. There’s a TV room with your angst teenage selves watching music videos , playing games and texting. Then there’s dozens of adult you’s walking around, sipping whatever trash you drank when you were young and broke, representing each of the distinct periods of your life: the insecure college you or hoe phased you, trying to look smarter than you actually are; the frustrated and exhausted you from your first job; the doe-eyed and innocent naïve you from the first time you fell in love.
For some this may sound as fun. But I think this “Beach Party of You” would actually get quite boring. The reason is that for each version of you that you talk to, you know everything that they know, while they only know a fraction of what you know.
You’d hang out with your awkward teenage self and reassure them not to worry, those painful years will pass and things will get better. Talk to your arrogant 23-year-old self and compassionately bring them down a notch. You’d talk to your smitten self who had just fallen in love for the first time and bask in the feelings of a new, young relationship—while not disclosing that Mr./Ms. Perfect is about to drag your heart across the pavement and smash it a dozen times with a sledgehammer.
But then there’d be that one former self that you’d be trying to avoid. That former self that did that horrible thing you’ve never quite found a way to forgive yourself for. If forced to finally speak to them, you would immediately start scolding them. This would ruin the party.
The beach Party of You would collapse into this one pointed, awful moment in your life that would suck away the joy and vibrance of all the others.
The Beach party of you is a kind of metaphor for what happens when you experience regret. You abandon and neglect the celebration of all of the interesting parts of your life to hone in on this one festering mistake that haunts you.
Regret is a form of self-hatred. If who you are today is a culmination of all of the acts that have led up to this moment, then the rejection of some past act is therefore a rejection of some part of you in this moment. Hating some part of yourself in the present messes you up psychologically.
It isn’t always a bad thing
Regret sometimes is not a bad thing; in fact, it can spur us to action. For example, if someone’s feeling regret that they haven’t spent their time well, that they’ve been too caught up in the busyness and the achieving, and then realising that their marriage is breaking up and they don’t really know their kids, having regret in that place can become an impetus to make changes. This parent might feel a twinge of regret for not focusing on their own child and marriage more and may then actually spend more time with his or her family. Or a child that hasn’t been soo good with their parents may be pushed to be better with them.
But for most people, regret becomes something more like an albatross.
If regret has become debilitating for you and is not spurring you to improve, but rather feels like the small mirror you are constantly checking behind you, maybe it’s time to let go of the regrettable experiences and move on to something new. While you can learn from any mistake, the only thing any human being has to work with is their present, and hopefully future, state. The present is where the action really is, and being present to where you are now and resolving to make better decisions going forward should be your commitment.
We’ve all made poor choices in life at some stage. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead of wasting more time and energy with regrets, guilt, shame and agony over what’s done, use those resources to bring on change so that poor choices remain in past and serve as lessons learnt.
Steps to stop looking back and start being present to your present, and working on your future:
Own it. Yes, whatever it is that happened, happened. You made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, went in the wrong direction. Whatever it is, it’s done. And you know what? It’s over. The fact of the human condition is that you won’t always choose wisely, and you won’t choose in your best interests every time. Sometimes you don’t have the right information. Sometimes emotions overrule your thinking, sometimes thinking overrules your “gut.”
Whatever it is, the bottom line is that the conditions are not always optimal for anyone to make the perfect decision every time. Give yourself a break. Own it, and love yourself anyway. It’s done and you can’t go back in history and rewrite.
Do whatever you need to (without harming yourself or others) to get the emotion out, then let it go.
Learn from it. Try and take an objective view of what happened.
1. What have I learned from this?
– In case this, or something similar happens in the future?
– How would I respond differently?
2. What made me respond or react in the way that I did, leaving me with feelings of regret?
– Identify triggers, emotional cues, or cyclic patterns.
3. Is this a pattern?
– Have I found myself in a similar situation, with similar outcomes? What do I need to own, and work through, in order to cut the cycle.
4. Leaving your heart open.
– Recognizing that everything happens for a reason, that may be beyond your comprehension.
– Providing an opportunity for more beautiful and wonderful things in your life.
You can learn a lot about how you make decisions by trying to understand what went awry.
Regret can take us through a whole spectrum of emotional states. One side of the spectrum is the dark lament we feel when we’re reminded of how fucked up and flawed we are. But the other side of regret, the side that makes it all worth it, is the light it shines in. That light guides us to a better understanding of ourselves—and ultimately to a place of acceptance of how fucked up and flawed we are.
Write about your regret. Set a timer for 10 minutes and let the words flow. Don’t censor, just let them flow. See what you are holding on to. Places that need love and attention, people you might need to talk to.
Once you have made peace with your regret, let it go!
Rip the paper up, bury it, burn it in the fire place. Do what feels right to release it and let it go.
Write out what you would like. If you regret a lost (or found) relationship, a career choice, a financial decision, an educational experience, then instead of focusing on “what if I had,” focus on “what I want.” You can’t revisit the past, but you can turn your attention to something you want.
Realise that often it’s not too late to rectify some situations, and make them right.
Regret is like quicksand. It stops you, holds you in place and slowly you start to subsume to it and start to sink in the quilt, fear and often times shame. No longer do you have to be held prisoner by your regret!
Befriend your regret, learn from it and set it free..
If you don’t feel regret, and you’re without remorse, you will find yourself in the very difficult position of continuing to do something destructive without insight, causing damage to family and friends.” To me, “regret, though it’s very painful, can be a gift. It can be the doorway to a better way of living, of being with others.”