I have heard others say that they have no regrets and if that is true then I applaud them for their selfless and worthy existence. But is it really true? I wonder sometimes if that declaration is one of defiance, or justification for a life lived carefully, or conventionally. The opposite end of the scale is those who live their lives so large, they trample on others, with no regret?
I agree that you shouldn’t regret the small stuff. You may have made an absolute idiot of yourself, you may have inadvertently hurt another persons’ feelings, you may have opened your mouth before engaging brain etc. but these are all fixable. A genuine show of regret, apology and sincere efforts not to repeat the action work wonders. And if it doesn’t, it’s time to move on.
The dangerous regrets
The regrets that gnaw away at us and need to have harsh light shone on them, are rarely for what we have done. The dangerous regrets are for a life not lived, for what we didn’t do.
“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
That is not a good place to get stuck, looking backwards with longing and no learning. The danger is we become bogged down with regret that paralyses us and prevents us from moving forward down a different and better path.
Sometimes, something happens to jolt us out of safety, out of our controlled existence, forcing us to re-evaluate. The loss of love, a job, certainty and it can be a pivotal moment. How we handle that moment can define whether we experience regret further down the line.
When I thought I was going to die I knew to the very marrow of my bones that I regretted the manner in which I had led my life up until that point. I had been seduced by the social conditioning we all go through and believed my worth was in how much money I could make.
Having survived I have made every effort to fundamentally change this way of thinking. It’s good to be satisfied with what you do have, rather than hanker after what you do not. It’s good to get a buzz from helping other people grow and achieve their potential without expecting a payback.
I still get some things wrong – we’re all human. And yes I do sometime kick myself and wish gosh darn it why did I do it that way? However, that’s not regret – that’s appreciating what effect you have had and then seeking to change it in the future.
The quiet nagging voice of regret
If you have ever suffered insomnia, you know that 3 am moment. There’s a great quote that describes this
“I’ve got a bad case of the 3:00 am guilts – you know, when you lie in bed awake and replay all those things you didn’t do right? Because, as we all know, nothing solves insomnia like a nice warm glass of regret, depression and self-loathing.”
― D.D. Barant
This is where I agree with adopting a no “hanging onto” regrets approach. If you genuinely did something wrong, then it’s up to you to fix it as best you can, then let go of it. Rehashing past mistakes without learning from them is counter-productive.
The more insidious regret is that uneasy feeling that you are not quite in the right place. You may look back later and say to yourself, “I wish I had…” The reality is, that at some point you made a decision to NOT do something and that was the turning point. To truly have no regrets you have to listen to that small voice saying, “what if?” and really allow yourself to follow the thought through.
Living with no regrets
It comes down to your own value set. If the work you do is not aligned to your values, it will start to make you feel uncomfortable and regretful. If you live your life dictated by what others want, you will, at some point regret this. Changing direction is sometimes a struggle but moving forward with passion and purpose is very worthwhile.
“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.” Steve Maraboli
Looking back helps us to identify our strengths and weaknesses but should not be an indulgence in regret. The good news? You can make a change at any time in your life. Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her seventies. Then she discovered it to be a true passion and it has brought joy to many people. Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbed Everest at age 65. Roget started work on his famous Thesaurus at the age of 61.
So, stop regretting life. Find your flow, change direction if you need to, and as the late Robin Williams said in Dead Poet’s Society, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day…Make your lives extraordinary!”