Apparently I’m quite unusual; here’s my secret.
“I don’t do regrets. Regrets are pointless. It’s too late for regrets. You’ve already done it, haven’t you? You’ve lived your life. No point wishing you could change it.”
― Lemmy Kilmister
I first realized that my outlook on life was rather unusual when I got interviewed by Joel Mwakasege a couple of years ago.
Now, in case you don’t know Joel, he’s the editor of the Medium publication Be Yourself. Over many years, Joel has been gathering a huge number of personal stories from people all around the world.
Which is to say that there are probably just a few people on this planet who have heard as many personal stories as him.
At some point in our interview, Joel asked me something along those lines: “Looking back, what do you wish you would have done differently in your life?”
I paused for a moment and thought about things that hadn’t gone well in my life, mistakes I had made, chances I had missed.
But when I considered going back in time and doing something different in my past, I realized that that would mean missing out on whatever I had learned from my failures and hang-ups.
I also realized that I am the product of my entire past, not just the good parts. This is why changing the bad parts around would make me a different person than I am today (at least that’s what always happens in time-traveling shows).
And since I like who I have become, I realized that I actually felt good about the road I had taken to getting there, no matter how bumpy it was.
So I answered: “You know, nothing really. Or perhaps some small things like starting to floss earlier on.”
What Joel said next stuck with me because it wasn’t what I had expected coming from someone who had gathered such a wealth of personal stories from people all around the globe.
He said something along the lines of: “You’re the first person to say that.”
That is how I realized that my outlook on life was actually pretty unusual. I hadn’t thought much about whether or not I was living a life with little regret but Joel’s question and his reflection made it apparent to me.
I suddenly realized how fortunate I was for not being excessively burdened by the heavy weight that is regret.
At some point, I started asking myself if there was something I could share with others that would allow them to start moving towards a similar place where they experience less regret than before.
After all, wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people could look back at their lives and say that they wouldn’t change a thing? Wouldn’t that be positive for everyone, including their loved ones and everyone else they interact with?
Upon thinking about it, here are a few key insights that I think can help you get started on your journey to letting go off regret.
You don’t need to live a perfect life to have little regret about it.
The first lesson I’d like to impart is that you don’t actually need to live a perfect life to have little regret about it.
I’ve done things I most certainly wouldn’t do again if the choice should present itself.
I’m also definitely not perfect and — as my husband will be more than happy to confirm — not a saint (unless saints are allowed to be grumpy in the morning, argumentative, and in need of an excessive amount of personal space).
I don’t experience little regret because I’m perfect, but because I’m (mostly) okay with not being perfect and because I strive to heal negative repeating patterns in my life.
If you think you need to do things perfectly or be perfect, you will experience regret.
That regret comes from holding yourself to an impossible standard.
Instead, realize that you’re human, like all of us. We’re here to learn and grow. We can’t learn and grow if we don’t make mistakes, just as we only learned to walk by falling flat on our baby faces a few times.
It’s all part of the journey and the important question is not how often we fall down, but how often we get back up.
Or, as the great Bruce Lee put it:
“It is not a shame to be knocked down by other people. The important thing is to ask when you’re being knocked down, ‘Why am I being knocked down?’ If a person can reflect in this way, then there is hope for this person.”
Having little regrets doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t grow or make amends when you’ve been wrong.
“The difference between a moral person and a person of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, made out of weakness and tries to make amends with their life when they find the opportunity to say they are sorry is lost.” — Shannon Alder
I think that there are many cases when regret serves a useful function, such as when we’ve done something that really wasn’t okay and that has hurt someone.
In that case, our regret might drive us to make amends (if possible) and to commit to doing things differently in the future.
That’s not the type of regret I’m talking about. Regret about something concrete that leads to a change is what I’d call growth-oriented or functional regret.
However, this can turn into what I’d call chronic or dysfunctional regret. To me, chronic regret about something that we can’t change or influence at all doesn’t typically serve a useful function.
Sure, it might drive us to do something different in the distant future… but why not just decide to do things differently right here and right now without beating ourselves up for the rest of eternity?
To give you a personal example on how to use regret for growth: I once missed out on seeing my grandfather one last time just before he passed away. He was declining rapidly and lived a couple of hours away from us. The day we were planning to go see him started with us getting a call that it was too late.
While I really wish I would have been able to see him, I have since made peace with the situation. It also taught me an extremely valuable lesson about taking action as quickly as possible.
When a similar situation happened with my husband’s grandmother, I pushed him into traveling to go see her as soon as possible, instead of assuming that we would have more time to do so.
And my insistence to leave as soon as possible is what allowed us to be in the room with her while she passed away.
Here’s the thing: if it hadn’t been for the situation with my own grandfather, that wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t have been as insistent about not wasting any time.
So, in the end, something positive came out of my regret.
If you experience chronic regret, is there a way to turn it into growth? One way to do that is to ask yourself if there’s an action you can take or a change (even just in attitude) you can make based on the regret you feel.
For instance, if you’ve been unkind to someone in the distant past (and isn’t that something we have all done?), can you either reach out to them and apologize or simply commit to doing better in the future with other people?
Forgiveness really helps.
If you want to live a life with little regrets, it really helps to learn how to forgive yourself and others.
In some ways, letting go of regret and forgiving other people are actually two sides of the same coin. After all, letting go of regret is ultimately about self-forgiveness and self-compassion (here's a meditation that can help with that).
So, how do you forgive things that you don’t think you can forgive?
A couple of years ago, I learned a really useful process for letting go of negative emotions. And while this is not something that could be adequately explained in an article, here is one simple thing I learned that all of us can apply right away and that already makes a huge difference:
When you’re upset about something someone did, ask yourself what you wanted that you didn’t get.
If someone else has wronged you, ask yourself what you wanted from them that you didn’t get. For instance: “What I wanted that I didn’t get is for him to honor my boundaries.” Or: “What I wanted that I didn’t get is for her to be supportive of me.”
If you’re trying to forgive yourself, ask yourself what you wanted from yourself that you didn’t get. For instance: “What I wanted that I didn’t get is for me to act in integrity.” Or: “What I wanted that I didn’t get is for me to think before taking action.”
What makes this question so powerful is that it clarifies why we’re upset in the first place. As such, it puts us into a slightly more “enlightened” perspective than when we share the story of how someone has wronged us or how we’ve messed up.
I try to remember to ask myself that question anytime I get angry or upset about someone and most of the time, it makes a huge difference.
For instance, the other week I accidentally deleted a lot of files from my laptop for good because I was hurrying to complete something (and no, file recovery didn’t help).
Overall, I handled the situation pretty well but I was, of course, a bit annoyed about it. What helped me feel better was to search for a lesson in it (“share your creation as soon as you can because you can’t lose what you give to others”) and to then ask myself the question I just shared with you.
So, what did I want from myself that I didn’t get in that situation, you may ask? For me to take a moment to pause before leaping into action.
And if this situation helped me get that lesson, I’d say it was well worth the annoyance that came with it.
If you’ve read so far, I encourage you to try out some of the techniques and mindset shifts I’ve shared above.
After all, there’s one thing that humans never ever seem to regret.
And that’s self-forgiveness.
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