“No regrets” is popular mantra these days. And it’s one I’ve come to find very frustrating.
My reasoning is straightforward: when I close my heart to regret, I don’t just say no to suffering. I also put the brakes on learning and halt my next phase of personal growth.
Much of my life is in flux right now. I recently got married, went travelling, and began yet another career pivot. To top it off, we’re probably relocating soon. All this movement – some joyous, some stressful – has given me cause to look back and reexamine past decisions, and by extension, my regrets.
Left unacknowledged and unprocessed, difficult emotions hide in the recesses our being. Regret is no different. In my case, I discovered that powerful regrets about my career path still live within me. For various reasons, I found myself wishing I could turn back the clock, wipe the slate clean, and give myself a fresh start.
Just typing that triggers guilt – shouldn’t I appreciate my medical training, and all the opportunity it unlocked? Am I being ungrateful to wish that out of existence? Childish even?
You’ll notice plenty of judgemental language there. Internal judgements does little to promote healing, learning, or self-awareness. Sure, such thoughts may serve to defend me against the pain of regret. But at what cost?
To answer this question, I’d like to reflect on the nature of regret, and share my emerging philosophy on the matter. I’ve found it quite empowering, and I hope you’ll find the same.
What Is Regret?
Before going on, let’s get on the same page. Perhaps we all experience regret differently, so all I’ll answer the above question through the lens of my own experience.
I’ve found regret to be a complex, multi-layered feeling – one which can cut deep and endure for years. For me, regret actually feels like an amalgamation of many other forms of pain, such as:
- Longing (for things to be different)
That’s a lot to process, isn’t it? No wonder we’d rather not talk about our regrets. We don’t want to open old wounds and feel all that pain rushing in. So instead, we push regret out of our awareness. The mantra “no regrets” is symptomatic of this impulse to deny.
We also begin to fear for anyone else making contact with their own reservoir of regret. They become somehow “wrong” for feeling any regret at all.
“Life’s too short”, we chide them.
“You need to move on from the past”, we advise.
But reality is reality. If a feeling exists in us, it is valid ipso facto.
What’s more, sometimes looking back in anger is the exact path to healing and acceptance we must walk. Here are three steps to help you transform your regrets into personal growth fuel.
1) Separate Action From Identity
The difference between how I treat others vs myself sometimes shocks me.
Last weekend, for instance, I made pizzas for the family. Not thinking it through, I placed them on tinfoil before putting them in the oven. Much to my dismay, the pizzas ended up sticking to the tinfoil, causing a hot mess.
Had someone else done the same, I would’ve consoled, reassured, and supported them to make the best of things. But I treated myself much more harshly.
“You should’ve known better!” I told myself.
“Why did I make such a silly decision? I’m a terrible cook.”
Instead of learning from my decision, or empathising with myself, I was making a common mistake – blending action with identity.
Cooking mishaps are only a small example of this pattern. Taken to the extreme, this kind of thinking swallows people up, leading them to feel deep shame for potentially decades. When we mix up our “worth” with our past decisions, we’re in dangerous water.
So when you reflect on suboptimal choices, just notice this tendency. Which self-directed thoughts and feelings do you begin to harbour? Do judgemental labels like “bad”, “stupid” or “worthless” come up? Take care to set those aside from the concrete, observable actions you took, which you now wish could be undone.
2) Wallow With Presence
In my experience, all that critical self-judgement is actually a way to shield myself from the raw feelings underneath. The paradox is that it’s easier to blame/chastise myself than to absorb reality. Namely, that my actions (or lack thereof) had undesirable consequences, and god dammit how I wish I could turn back time!
When this truth hits, it can feel overwhelming. That was that moment, this is this moment. What’s gone is gone. It’s a painful truth, and one I’ve found it important to wallow in. Not in a self-pitying way, but with presence and self-compassion.
The body is crucial here. Acting as a portal, it allows us to enter subtle feelings we’re often too busy to notice. Where in my body do I feel the grief of regret? It might live as a searing pain in my chest, or a wrenching ache in my gut.
When you locate this in yourself, breathe into it. Feel its contour, locate its centre, and spend some time there. Give your suffering an opportunity to be experienced, and eventually, evaporated in the light of your consciousness. This may not happen all in one sitting.
3) Let Regrets Teach You
Finally, allow regret to become your guide.
Now we’ve given it space to be what it is, we can use regret to propel us forward.
But in truth, our personal growth is already well underway. Think about it: the very fact of feeling regret probably means you wouldn’t act the same way next time. Therefore, you’re remaining open enough to be changed by the experience.
To tease out the precious learning, the key question to ask is this:
What did I say or do – or NOT say or do – that I now recognise as detrimental in meeting my needs (or someone else’s)?
Often, I’ll realise I was only working with the information (both external and internal) available to me at the time. Perhaps my actions were designed to meet certain needs (or core values) at the expense of others. Or maybe I successfully met my own needs while acting against someone else’s needs in the process. And of course, the opposite could also be true.
Revisiting the earlier example, I now recognise that I joined medical school as a way to meet needs like stability, competence, and contribution.
But I now recognise the seeds of discontent were there from the beginning – my heart wasn’t in it. In other words, becoming a doctor wasn’t the best strategy to meet my need for passion, creativity, fulfilment, and authenticity.
While I didn’t have access to this level of insight at a teenager, it’s the present moment that counts. And in this moment, my self-understanding has never been sharper. In my experience, that’s the fruit of taking a good hard look at your regrets.
If that’s something you want too, then I invite you to do the same.