E06: Reflect and regret
A full life includes regret, but there's a difference between experiencing regrets and carrying them with you. To live intentionally, you must accept regret, but aim to forgive yourself so you aren't burdened by shame. As we reflect on 2020, it's important to process regret, too.
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Today we’ll talk about:
Why people say they live with no regrets
Why it’s important to accept regrets as a fact of life
How to shed regret and shame
December is commonly a time for reflection. This month, I want to talk about a few things we can reflect on and leverage to help us grow and become more healthy. Today’s topic is regret. Specifically why regret is a helpful, beneficial, and constructive mechanism for growth and healing. There are two sides of the regret coin that are both destructive. Both prevent a peaceful life and increase anxiety. On the one hand, sometimes we repress those feelings. We may believe we live with no regrets. If that’s you, I hope to convince you that you do. On the other hand, sometimes we let them fester. We may have regrets and let them burden us. If that’s you, I hope to encourage you to unburden yourself today. There is a key difference between experiencing regret and carrying it with you. Furthermore, there is a constructive way to use, and then shed, your regret.
Regret looks like a lot of things like shame, sorrow, guilt, apologies, and replaying “what if” scenarios in your head. I want to take a minute to talk about what regret is not. It is not guilt that you feel for no reason. Women tend to be more empathetic and often experience guilt for things that aren't our fault! When you stay at a job or in a relationship because you feel guilty leaving someone hanging, or when you feel mom guilt for not giving your children the perfect life you see on Instagram - these aren’t examples of real guilt because you didn’t do anything wrong. This kind of guilt is not what we are talking about today. I want to talk about them someday but it's such a big topic that I'll devote a whole episode to guilt. As you listen today, consider if you have regret over something you truly should or shouldn't have done (which is what we're talking about today) or if you feel guilty for something in an unproductive, unhealthy way. Back to regrets...
Regret is a loaded topic so we’re going to talk about everything today. Vulnerability, making amends, taking responsibility, forgiving yourself, and more. I hope you feel like going deep!
My husband and I were watching 90 Day Fiance the other day, because we have great taste in television, and one of the characters said “I have no regrets.” This is a common phrase; you hear it everywhere. When I heard her say it, it gave me pause. This woman was flying halfway around the world to marry a man she barely knew, already had a tense relationship with him and his family because of several cultural faux pas she had made, and was hiding a secret that she was still married to her ex-husband. A secret that everyone would find out about when the show airs. Yet, she says she has NO regrets. Really? So she’s totally fine with the choices she’s made? She’s not sorry for lying to her future husband? Alright.
She probably wasn’t thinking about what she was saying though. After all, it is extremely common for people to say they have no regrets. The hashtag, “no regrets,” plus its most common misspellings like “no regerts” has about 4.5 million posts on Instagram. It sounds strong and confident, right? Whereas I couldn’t find a pro-regret hashtag with more than a couple hundred thousand posts. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Why do people say they live with no regrets? I’m not an expert or a therapist. But I have several reasons from my own experiences. It’s a saying that makes us feel better about the choices we’ve made in an attempt to avoid feeling guilt or discomfort. It’s easier to say you have no regrets than to bear the cognitive load of self-reflection because processing regret can be overwhelming. You may have to work through shame or guilt and consider alternate “what if” scenarios. This is tough work and many people prefer to avoid it.
Saying it makes you seem strong, proud, and confident on the exterior. It’s hard to admit failure, foolishness, and mistakes. You don’t want to dwell on them or let others see them so you suppress thinking about them at all. In reality, a lack of regret is arrogant and demonstrates a lack of thoughtfulness, remorse, and experience. But I don’t think people realize that’s what they’re communicating when they say those words. I certainly didn’t realize it.
I have said that I live with no regrets before. I wasn’t thinking deeply about what I was really saying though. I thought that, if I said I lived with regrets, I would be demonstrating discontentment for my current circumstances. After all, my choices, even the bad ones, brought me to where I am now. So I should be thankful, right? I think that’s a common line of thinking. Fortunately, you can be regretful and thankful simultaneously. I regret being lazy my senior year of college and slacking off so much that I didn’t graduate and had to wait tables to pay for my last year of school. I regret it because laziness is not in my moral wheelhouse and it’s foolish to waste opportunities that are good for you. But I’m thankful for where that foolish error took me - to a cheap house in Redmond, Washington, with 5 other roommates, one of whom was my future husband. The regret doesn’t stay with me because it isn’t constructive and because I learned from it. I have made amends for my errors and can move on with the knowledge of how to live better.
If you think regrets don’t affect you, or you say you live with no regrets, then it may be helpful to think of regrets in a different way. Have you ever been ashamed or felt guilty? If you think about how you process shame - either shame about things you’ve done or things that have happened to you - you will start to understand how you process regret. So, how do you process shame? Do you suppress those feelings so you don’t have to deal with them or let them consume you and prevent you from moving forward? Most of us land somewhere in the middle, though I’m sure we’ve been guilty of letting the pendulum swing too far to either side before.
Have you ever been sorry for anything or felt shame over actions you’ve taken? Have you said “I wish I wouldn’t have done that” or considered alternate “What if” scenarios in the event you had taken a different action in the past? If you have, then you’ve experienced regret in some capacity before.
I hope you’re quite convinced that you’ve experienced regret. Why is it important that you stop saying you live with no regrets? Because, if you mean it, you limit your ability to learn from failures and grow. You demonstrate a lack of humility or willingness to admit wrongdoing, mistakes, or failures. More importantly, you could be hurting those who hear you because it sounds like you aren’t remorseful for times that you’ve hurt others. If someone who hurt me said they lived with no regrets, I would hear that as “even though I hurt you, I don’t regret it.” If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama, you see the perpetrator tell the court “I regret my actions. I wish I wouldn’t have done them.” And the judge actually lessens their sentence due to their remorse! We, the audience, want to believe their expression of regret. We want people who have done wrong to regret their decisions. If we want murderers and rapists and others who are clearly in the wrong to admit regret, why don’t we encourage people to express regrets over lesser failures and sins? Where is the line where we allow people to say “no regrets” as though they aren’t sorry for anything they’ve done?
As your life lengthens and experience increases, it will necessarily include regret. Accept this as a fact of life. The more weighty choices you make, the higher the stakes are, and the more permutations of various alternate timelines you could have pursued will burrow their way into your psyche. And yet, regrets alone aren’t necessarily destructive. What you do with them can be either constructive or destructive. When you learn from your mistakes, you’ll grow. When you carry your failures, mistakes, and regrets around with you, progress and growth will be slow and anxiety will be high. That’s destructive. As you age, the gap between who you thought you’d be and who you are widens as your choices take you further from your ideal. When you can’t do anything to narrow that gap, you may feel shame over choices made or actions not taken, and bear the cognitive burden of replaying “what if” scenarios in your mind.
You might get closer to understanding if you have let regrets or shame burden you if you consider how you replay these “what if” scenarios in your head. “What if” scenarios are a fact of life for reasoning, curious humans. We regularly consider if events would have gone differently if we’d taken a slightly different action. What if you had made a different choice? What if you hadn’t been in that relationship or gone to that party? What if you’d treated your children or your spouse differently? This is totally normal, but dwelling on these scenarios is not constructive. It’s almost as though we are grieving how things could have been.
If you do this, you remain under the weight of your failures indefinitely. This is soul-crushing and to be avoided at all costs. This is like trying to lift a heavy weight. You load up too much weight on the bar. As you’re squatting down, you realize it’s too much weight and you won’t be able to get back up. If you’ve ever lifted, you know that, usually, you are aware it’s too heavy early on and you consider your options. You can drop the weight, yell for help, or let yourself be crushed. But instead of dropping the weight or yelling for help, you fall flat on your face and let it stay on top of you as you flail about or worse. You need to drop the weight. It’s the only way forward.
So, let’s dive into how we can use regrets constructively and heal from the burdens we carry.
All that’s required to be more mindful is to not suppress feelings of shame, guilt, or sorrow - the feelings of regret. Instead, recognize them and deal with them. What follows are my suggestions for dealing with those feelings. This all comes with a caveat: I’m not a therapist. I have no special knowledge in this topic. I have a bachelor’s degree in Sociology which qualifies me for nothing except getting a job but does speak to my genuine interest in why people are the way they are. I speak from my own experience and from what I’ve learned as a generally inquisitive person who reads a lot.
1. Remember that you are forgiven
Ultimately, shame comes down to a lack of forgiveness. At least, it does for me. People who have forgiven you - truly forgiven you - don’t shame you. Often our biggest struggle is without ourselves, though. Have you ever felt like you just can’t forgive yourself? About 10 years ago, I was talking to a pastor about something I’d done that I regretted. I had made amends, taken responsibility, and changed my behavior. And still, I was stuck in my shame. He asked what I needed to get past it and I said “I don’t know. I just can’t forgive myself.” He said, “God forgives you. Are you saying you’re more powerful than God that you get to withhold forgiveness?” I immediately realized that I had been choosing to hold on to my guilt. No one was making me do it and, in fact, I wasn’t supposed to feel guilty anymore. I was forgiven. I’m telling you that nothing is unforgivable.
This conversation forever changed the way I experience regret and shame. Yes, I’m still responsible for my actions. But I don’t have to live under the weight of unforgiveness. Everything that follows is a product of how this conversation reshaped my life.
2. Consider how you’d treat a friend
Another way to think about forgiveness is from the perspective of a close friend or even a parent. When they see you, do they see your mistakes and failures? Likely not. They see the person they love. You are not your mistakes and failures. Often we identify with them when we carry our regrets.
This is my principle for life. Anytime I feel like I’m beating myself up, I consider what self-talk or treatment I would give a best friend if she were in my shoes. I didn’t come up with this on my own - my friend basically taught me this. But it’s been effective at improving the way I treat myself. I talk about this more in episode 1 of this podcast.
Friends forgive each other. If your best friend had committed an offense, and was trying to turn things around, how quickly would you forgive her? Would you want her to carry all of that guilt and shame? Or would you want her to forgive herself?
3. Stop seeing failures as a reflection of your intention
Learn to separate mistakes from your intention. People who associate regrets with mistakes or failures tend to feel like they’re admitting that they knew they’d make a mistake. This is a fallacy. In reality, when you regret something you did or didn’t do, you’re only admitting that an action you took resulted in a mistake. Often, it’s easy to see our actions as mistakes in hindsight because we have more facts. It’s ok to recognize this after the fact and take responsibility, but give yourself a little grace knowing that you didn’t intend to mess up. At the time we make choices, we do the best we can with the information we have and usually aren’t expecting an impending failure. Regrets do not equal mistakes and mistakes do not equal an intention to fail.
If you are struggling with feeling guilty for something you couldn’t have foreseen, ask yourself a couple of questions like: “Given the information I had at the time, could I have known that my actions would result in failure? If so, how could I avoid failure in the future?”
A few years ago, my husband proposed we invest our savings into Bitcoin. I refused, because we didn’t have a lot of money to spare and, at the time, there was very little to indicate that the investment would pay off. In hindsight, of course I regret not investing in Bitcoin! But this doesn’t mean I knowingly made a mistake, because I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. So regrets do not necessarily equal blatant foolish mistakes. Once you internalize this, you can let yourself off of the hook for failures you never could have seen coming.
4. Ask yourself different questions
Change your internal dialogue by moving away from “what if” questions like “What if I had not gone to that party or what if I had kept that job?” because they aren’t constructive. There is nothing helpful you can do with the answer to that question so you’re doomed to keep spinning over it in your mind. I can’t ask “What if we’d invested in Bitcoin?” because it will only make me feel badly that I don’t have millions of dollars! Everytime you find yourself spinning over these “what if” questions ask yourself this instead: “What if I keep beating myself up for what I’ve done or what’s happened to me? What if I never forgive myself? Can I be the person I want to be carrying this shame around?” If you don’t want to be the person that your shame is turning you into, you must put an end to it.
5. Get vulnerable
So, get over it. Easier said than done, right? Well, take it one step at a time. A big part of unburdening your spirit is sharing with others. It’s easy to feel alone in our hurt, fear, pain, shame, guilt, etc, when we keep it inside. There is a power in vulnerability. Sharing these emotions helps us process them. Saying them out loud takes their power away. It also helps you and others feel less alone.
Every time I told someone about my miscarriage, it hurt a little less. I talk a lot about vulnerability in Episode 3 of this podcast, titled How to deepen relationships.
If possible, talk to the offended party first. If amends need to be made and you don’t go first to the injured person, then you’ll harden yourself to what healthy guilt feels like.
Which brings us to our next point: apologize. Perhaps you can’t let go because you need to make amends. No matter how old your grievance is, whether or not the other person is expecting it, apologize. This is so important. Maybe as important as forgiveness. And yeah, it sucks to apologize sometimes. This is one of the most vulnerable things you could do. You know how you dread an apology in the time leading up to it - it’s like a lead ball in your belly - but when it’s over, you feel relieved? It’s always worth it in the end. In the Bible, Matthew 5:23-24 is about making sure that you have no grievances with another person before you go and make an offering to God. It’s a primary action to take on the path to healing. Even if the other party doesn’t receive your apology, it’s worth it to do the right thing.
There is someone in my life that I offended unintentionally a few years ago. We were friends until, suddenly, we weren’t. I had no idea what happened until someone else told me how I had offended her. Once I learned about it, I was so sad that I had unknowingly hurt someone. It ate me up. I had to apologize. She wouldn’t talk to me. I tried saying “hi” when I saw her and she pretty much looked through me. A text invitation to talk was ignored. So I communicated the only way I could given how distant she was being. I wrote an email. It’s not ideal, but I felt it was my only option. I told her I expected nothing in return and understood if she never wanted to be friends but I needed to apologize for what I’d done. She never responded. We still aren’t friends and, though I’m grieved by that fact, I am no longer consumed by the sorrow of my failure as a friend. I did my part to try to make amends and can rest easy knowing that. Additionally, I learned from that mistake. I immediately went to all of my other close friends and asked them to please tell me if I’d ever hurt them. Obviously I also try to avoid offending people in general but I know I make mistakes sometimes. When you talk as much as I do, something stupid is bound to come out! I’m working on that!
7. Leverage key learnings
I put this point last because I hope it’s the most obvious one. One of the best ways to overcome regret is to change your behavior. You know this. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes. You have to take time to reflect, be thoughtful, and consider what you could have changed. Leverage your key learnings from your mistakes in order to move forward. In my Bitcoin example, I can’t go back in time and change my decision now but I can use the information I now have to avoid those mistakes in the future. I can listen to my husband a little more when he has a similar suggestion and consider the opportunity more before shutting it down.
In conclusion, don’t be like the lady in 90 Day Fiance, acting like you’ve done nothing that is regrettable. But don’t be like me either. Don’t act like what you’ve done is unforgivable. There is a balance here, and I hope you find it!
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