The Reward of Regret: Why Looking Back Can Actually Help Us Look Forward

Thank God for regret. Yes, that is right. Regret has become one of my most important sources of wisdom. Though, I can’t yet say I look forward to the inevitable feelings of regret that arise?- when I miss an opportunity or worse, when I do something I am ashamed of?- I can honestly say that regret does not mess me up anymore.

Regret seems to be built into our human condition, for none of us lives up to our ideals completely. It isn’t only that we act less well towards others than our conscience dictates; we also fail ourselves by not developing our talents and by letting opportunities slip by. As a result we often find ourselves wincing and cringing with regret. “Why did I do that?” “Why did I say that?” “How could I have been so hurtful, so insensitive?” Or those life regrets like ‘I should never have moved.”? “I am sorry that I didn’t major in college in what I really loved?”? “I shouldn’t have ended that relationship.”? “I should have taken that job.” Or the small more daily regrets, “I shouldn’t have eaten so much, drank so much, stayed up so late, wasted so much time playing Candy Crush?” Regret is a natural part of life. Can we imagine looking back on even one day and after honestly examining everything we did and did not do on that day, say we have no regrets at all?? Moreover, could we actually imagine a person who had no regrets? How self-aware and imaginative would such a person be?? I would be frightened of someone who never had any regrets – as it seems to me they would have to either be delusional or remarkably arrogant.

Understandably, because regret doesn’t feel good and sometimes is downright painful our focus always seems to be on trying to get rid of our regrets. We are counseled by self-help teachers, with the best of intentions, not to waste our time on feeling regretful, not to live in the past but to let go of our regrets and live in the now.? But I am not so sure this is good advice or that regret is such a problem. Lately, I have come to realize that ignoring our regrets, trying to just let them go and barge ahead in life is as problematic as holding on to our regrets and having them overwhelm us.

We have to make choices and every choice we make, whether we are conscious of it or not, creates limits and closes off some roads or some possibilities and has unintended consequences.? This is true of so called good choices and bad choices. ?Perhaps, rather than being afraid or shutting out regret, we can begin to see regret as an invitation to grow – as an inner tool of awareness. Regret is part of ourselves telling us that there is more of us to uncover – more capacities to develop, more experiences we can have, deeper relationships we can nurture. Yes, regret is messy but when we embrace the messiness we can discover possibilities that are always still available. With just a shift of perspective, regret can become a teacher. Rather than simply being depressed or paralyzed by regret we can embrace our regrets and allow them to unveil a partial truth about our lives that can still be acted upon – whether it is reengaging people who we regret hurting or reengaging part of a dream we may have had about our life.? We always have the choice – to see regret as something depressing or to see it as our heart and mind breaking through to invite us into a new world – one that might actually be far more interesting than the very one we regretted losing.


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