We all have them and struggle with them. To live fully is to have regrets; they are an unpleasant, though unavoidable, part of the human condition.
You may know people who proudly declare that they’ve lived boldly and have no regrets. Believing that we shouldn’t experience regret places us in double jeopardy: we experience them and wonder what’s wrong with us for having them. If we have no regrets, then we either haven’t been paying attention or are living in denial. We all screw up sometimes.
We might define regrets as carrying sorrow or shame regarding past actions or decisions. There are many things we might regret. Perhaps we regret our partnership choice, decisions around our health, finances, or career, or not having spent enough time with our loved ones. Maybe we regret that we didn’t relish our life enough or take more risks. Perhaps we feel badly for having hurt others and are paralyzed by shame to recognize the harm we’ve caused by our narcissism or insensitivity.
A major challenge of being human is to allow ourselves to have regrets without being debilitated by them. Obsessing on past actions or decisions that we feel badly about can lead to depression and rob us of the joy of living. Replaying scenes in our mind and wishing we had done things differently can keep us spinning our wheels, creating much misery. Caught in the grip of the woulda, coulda, shouldas, we’re hijacked from the present moment and punish ourselves with an excessive barrage of self-incriminations.
Working with Our Regrets
Wisdom rarely arises without realizing how unwise or self-absorbed we’ve been. Good decisions grow out of the muddy waters of our bad decisions. Knowing what we know now, it’s all too easy to look back and wish we’d made different choices. One of the gravest disservices we inflict on ourselves is to judge the decisions we made then based upon what we know now. We only gain such knowledge through the portal of trial and error — and making mistakes.
Making space for regrets and being gentle with them is a step toward softening their hold over us. Affirming that it’s natural to have regrets may relieve some of the shame that keeps us frozen.
In a climate of gentle self-acceptance, we can turn our attention to what we might learn from our miscues. Redemption lies not in trying to eliminate regrets, but in using them as a doorway to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and life itself.
If we made poor relationship choices in the past, we can make better ones in the future. If we hurt someone due to disrespectful or self-destructive behavior, we can commit ourselves to a path of personal growth and mindfulness that increases respect and sensitivity toward ourselves and others. We can consider making amends if doing so is not an unwelcome intrusion. We can work with a therapist or join a twelve-step program to help us move forward. As we make wiser choices, we will have less regrets.
One category of regrets that can be especially troubling is when we’ve hurt others, especially if we’ve done so intentionally. In most instances, it is unintentional. We were acting from an ignorant or unconscious place. We’re hurting inside, so we lash out. We may not be fully aware of our motivation. We may want another to feel the pain that we’re in — a misguided attempt to muster some sense of power or justice. We can use our regrets as an impetus to find healthier ways to affirm ourselves, communicate our needs, and set boundaries in a healthy way.
Recognizing that we did our best with the information or self-awareness we had at the time might relieve a substantial burden of our regrets. But it might also be helpful or necessary for emotional healing to notice and embrace remorse for our actions.
Remorse refers to a deep moral or emotional anguish for something we’ve done that we deem to be shameful or wrong. It is comparable to healthy shame (as opposed to toxic shame), which gets our attention and can help us orient to life and people in a more attuned way.
Remorse includes a deep, soulful sorrow. This is different than attacking ourselves or clinging to a core belief that we’re bad and don’t deserve love. In fact, toxic shame is often the main obstacle to allowing ourselves to feel sorrow and remorse. If we equate the sorrow of hurting someone with the conviction that we’re an awful person, we’re unlikely to open to our sadness. But if we recognize that a part of the human condition is that we sometimes hurt each other, mostly without realizing it fully, then we’re more likely to welcome the unavoidable sorrows that are a part of life.
If we can find the courage and wisdom to feel the natural sadness of having hurt someone, then we may find a healing pathway for ourselves, as well as a key to repairing relationship rifts. If our partner senses how sad or badly we feel about a hurtful behavior or betrayal, then they’re more inclined to trust that we really “get” it and are less likely to repeat it. Our apologies, when coupled with a deeply felt remorse, are infinitely more powerful than the mere words, “I’m sorry.”
Resting in the cauldron of our sorrow without denigrating ourselves can allow us to become a deeper person, and also to cultivate a more soulful empathy toward others. The redemption of self-forgiveness dawns as we bring gentleness to our sorrow, learn lessons in a deeply felt way, and dedicate our lives to living with greater integrity, honesty, and mindfulness. We can have regrets without being their prisoner. We can make wiser choices and thereby have less regrets going forward.
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