Friday, January 3, 2014

Regret, Redo, Recycle, Release

There's been an uptick lately in the chatter that surrounds me—conversations with friends, media, articles or stories I read—about living a life without regret. Even Khloe Kardashian, one of the "famous for being famous" family, has recently espoused the venerable theory of accepting all things that happen as meant to be, a gift, a part of who you are and your story, in light of filing divorce papers.

"Don't regret anything, everything that happens has a reason, don't miss any opportunities, live your life like it isn't a dress rehearsal, know that even the bad stuff makes your life meaningful..."

I could go on and on. I'm sure you've heard these things, too.

I don't buy it.

I think regret is really important. Recognizing sadness or disappointment about opportunities that are lost, choices that have panned out differently than we'd hoped, or relationships that are broken due to our own behaviors is truthful. It's vulnerable. It's the way we grow up and learn how to do more that works, less that doesn't.

In a lifetime of infinite choices, which is what so many of us have, frankly, how could we always make the right choices? When we look back on the whole of our stories, we may see how everything has come together, hopefully for the better, but to assume that every twist and turn in these stories must be looked upon with perfect contentment seems revisionist to me. It also seems dangerous. Regret reminds me that I hurt people along the way, or compromised my integrity. I want to remember those things. I want to feel the hurt of them. I want my wrongs to make me empathetic and honest, and less likely to hurt again.

I would never advocate spending your life looking backward, wishing everything could be different. Regret is important, but it must be followed up in order to be really useful, and not just sad or soul-crushing. If I were to describe my experience with regret, at its most raw and helpful, I would say that it is sadness attached to wishing. The critical piece, here, is that it is sadness—a feeling—and I have found that trying to live without acknowledging my feelings a) makes them bigger, b) makes them more powerful, and c) disables me from using them to learn, repair, or develop.

For example, I wish that I could have realized when my daughter was a baby that trying so hard to breastfeed wasn't worth it, that it would have been better just to bond with her and enjoy her, that she was well and truly the only baby I would have, and all that pain was an unnecessary waste of our time. I feel that sadness, but then I remind myself, "You didn't have hindsight to guide you. You made the best choices you could. You learned from the experience. You are okay now."

I wish I had developed a love of sport or fitness earlier in life, or maintained a physical or outdoorsy hobby from my childhood on up. I now understand the impact that could have made on my life, and I'm sad that I am now suffering the consequences of that loss. I feel that sadness, and I ask, "What can you do now to give yourself the experience you wish you'd had all these years?"

I wish that I could have closer relationships with some of my family. I feel that sadness, then I say, "You can't control how other people feel about you. I forgive myself for not knowing how to reach out in the best way, or for hurting those people without realizing it. I forgive them for hurting me, too."

Along with the "no regrets" culture is the "forgive and forget" practice, which usually implies, "forgive and never feel bad about or think about ever again."

I don't buy that, either.

I think the reason that we so strongly want to rebuke regret is that we don't want the sad feelings to keep coming up, but honestly, I am discovering more and more that if I just let them come up, and I actually acknowledge them, they go away more quickly, and I can gain insight more immediately. Some regrets come up over, and over, and over. If I'm ruminating, I'm in trouble, but if something pops into my head that I haven't thought about for days, months, or years, it doesn't serve me to pretend it isn't there, or to attempt to rewrite my history so that I push it aside. "What does that sadness need to tell me now?" is almost always my best approach.

Being present is so critical to being happy, and also being effective in the world. But can you be present if you are pushing away your regret? Regret can lead to discovery, which in turn, can help you to "redo" choices in your present, based on understanding the long-term impact of similar choices on your past. Regret can also spur you to recycle old scraps of opportunity, and fashion them into new, present opportunities yet to be seized. And at its best, regret can help you feel forgiving of yourself and others for making choices that were the best that could be made at the time, but which caused hurt or sorrow. You may always have that hurt come up as twinges of pain, again and again, but if you feel the sadness, you can then release it back out, and focus yourself on empathy and love in the present.

I want to live a life full of everything, including useful, thoughtful, and sometimes painful regret. That's something I have no regrets about.


  1. I apologize for the tomb…
    Boy, do I relate to this post or what!?
    I have been working very hard recently on this very subject. I am realizing some poor choices I have made in the past that I have come to regret. That regret can be crushing. I could spend all day badgering myself over those choices because—being a fellow perfectionist—those were choices I didn't get right. And how could I have done that, with the information I had at the time?
    I spent a lot of years trying to be perfect and living in denial of my own faults. Now I have another choice—what do I do about that?
    Well, for one, I can admit that I'm human. For two, I can begin to forgive myself for being human. I can learn from those regrets and I can look at them with a gentle touch. Then come a new perspective.

    Case in point: I know a person (my husband's friend) who has really given me the cold shoulder for the past few years. At times I have felt the same cold shoulder coming from the rest of that circle of friends. What have I done to deserve this treatment? It's not the first time I've had issues with female friends, it must be me. I must fix this.
    Well, trying to fix things only makes it worse. What happens then is I feel left-out, abandoned, and depressed. I felt those feelings in my alcoholic marriage too. I regret I couldn't have fixed that relationship as well. Man, I suck.
    To have no regret about these things would mean I would stop investigating what part I had to play with these relationships. I would bury the past and move on. But would that have helped me at all?
    Fast forward to the other week when the same friend had a party I attended. No, I didn't want to go but was trying to be supportive to the husband. While I'm there something finally dawns on me. I begin seeing some very familiar behaviors between this friend and her husband—over alcohol. Immediately I begin remembering other times I've seen similarities with the two of them. BAM!
    I suddenly know why she's been giving me the cold shoulder. My past is no secret within this group. She has been systematically pushing me away because I might be the one who can see her life for what it might really be. And maybe she's not ready to deal with that yet and I can be a real threat to her denial.
    THIS is a new perspective. I was able to look at memories of my alcoholic marriage with gentle hand. I don't torture myself with the "what-ifs" as much. Because of that I have found a new compassion for my sick-ex husband. I don't always take things as personally as I once did. This thing with this friend is not really about me, but about her struggle.
    What can I do about it now, given my new perspective? Not much. I can offer support, babysit for her child, give her an ear…but mainly I can see her pain through the shield she wears and be a silent witness. I can't fix this, this isn't about me, and that lifts a huge weight off my shoulders. If I had buried my regret from the past I never would have been able to see this.

  2. Are you *really* sure you're not a Buddhist? ;)