I used to buy into the whole “regrets are bad” thing. It sounds good and it makes sense: Regret is a bad feeling, so not having regrets would be a good thing, right?
When I sat and really thought about it, though, asking myself if I have regrets, I realized that I do – many, in fact. Most are small – things like wishing I hadn’t said something to someone or said it in a particular way. But there are a few big, life-impacting decisions, too. And I genuinely regret them.
At first I felt badly about that. It seemed like I was doing something wrong, given the pervasiveness of the “no regrets” movement.
For example, when I just Googled “live without regret”, the following three items were the top results:
- How to Live Your Life Without Regret
- 40 Ways to Live Life Without Regrets
- How to Start Living Life Without Regret Right Now
There are also a kajillion memes and quotes about it, in case you are interested.
So, I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t regret those things. “Regret is bad” seemed to be everywhere and so many people I knew were adherents. Many people, in fact, talked about it as thought it were a badge of honour. “I regret nothing I’ve ever done!”
But I couldn’t quite convince myself to really get on board.
Maybe it’s a matter of semantics. For me, regret is about wishing I hadn’t done something (or in some cases, wishing I had). A couple of definitions I found online says pretty much the same thing:
- Merriam-Webster: to be very sorry for
- Cambridge Dictionary : a feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better
From what I’ve read and heard, though, regret seems to have been equated with dwelling on things. If that’s where you’re coming from, then I agree: We shouldn’t dwell on things to a negative degree.
For me, though, regret and dwelling on things are totally separate items.
The things I regret, I regret for very specific reasons: they either hurt other people or myself.
As such, I’m glad I regret them because the regret reminds me why I don’t want to repeat those actions (or inactions).
I still wish that in those moments I had made other choices and I’m glad I feel that way. They weren’t OK choices to make. Honestly, to me, I should regret them.
Yes, I learned lessons from them, but me having an opportunity to learn a lesson isn’t a valid reason to excuse those decisions – decisions that caused hurt and pain.
Learning the lesson, rather, is the way to turn a bad thing into a not-so-bad thing. It still doesn’t turn it into a “good” thing (to me), but it kind of makes the best out of a bad situation.
The important thing is that I don’t dwell on those things. I don’t use them to torture* myself or to paralyze myself from moving forward. And I have forgiven myself for them.
I could be wrong, but (going by the “I wish I hadn’t done that” definition) I don’t think it’s truly possible to have absolutely no regrets about anything ever.
Setting an expectation of “no regret” seems, then, to be setting ourselves up for failure. (If you are one to beat yourself up about poor choices, you probably don’t need another “failure” to add to your list. 😉 )
I think it’s just another one of those things where the pendulum seems to swing entirely to one direction or another.
Generally, we land, I think, somewhere in the middle.
We recognize we shouldn’t have done something, we learn from it, we take that learning with us and move on, with the regret in the perspective in which it was perhaps intended:
“Hey – that wasn’t so fun. Let’s not do that again, K?”
Want to learn more?
In finishing up this post, I thought I’d go back to the ol’ Google machine and see just how off-base I am with this whole “embrace your regrets” thing, and found an interesting article in the Huffington Post. It contains some comments from Brené Brown, if you are interested.
*There are times, yes, when my anxiety is on overdrive and my brain decides to replay every poor decision I’ve ever made (from decades ago even) and every unkind thing I’ve ever said. It even throws in several moments that weren’t poor decisions or unkind moments – it twists normal, everyday interactions and interprets them negatively. But that’s not about regret. That’s about brain chemistry. When I’m not in the throes of anxiety, I know the difference. But that can be a whole series of posts in and of itself. 🙂
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