Embracing Regret

If we embrace our regrets, we might learn something.

Posted May 14, 2019

Regrets/David B. Seaburn
Source: Regrets/David B. Seaburn

In 18 months, I will be 70 years old. No matter how hopeful or optimistic you are, at that age far more has already happened in my life than will ever happen in the yet-to-come; much more to analyze than to anticipate. When I look back, cluttering up my view are myriad regrets. Some beginning as early as grade school. (I shouldn’t have faked being sick so often; who knows what perfect attendance in third grade might have meant for my future?) Others occurred as recent as yesterday.

I’ve never understood people who say they have no regrets. You see them on TV or read about them online. They’ve often done terrible things in the past but have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and now feel that everything that happened along the way happened for a reason. In the end “it’s all good.”

I don’t trust these people. I would cross the street to avoid them because they don’t take seriously the ruin they may have caused for others on the road to their own personal renewal. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone does things that are hurtful. These things are worthy of regret. (I also don’t trust anyone who says “it’s all good” although I don’t feel the need to cross the street when I see them coming.)

My dilemma is that I’d love to be rid of my regrets, but by the same token, I feel that some of them are well worth keeping. What to do?

Go online, that’s what to do. There is a wealth of advice about how to get rid of regrets. Most of them are encouragingly simple: 5 steps, 8 strategies, 20 ways. I thought of trying the 20 ways method but it seemed so involved that I was afraid I would regret taking it on.

Nevertheless, I knew I shouldn’t give up. Research shows that regretters (yes, there is a name for us) can disrupt their own immune systems, especially if they are over 65 (uh oh) which can lead to more frequent sinus congestion, colds, headaches, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. (Excuse me while I blow my nose and take another SSRI.)

I discovered that regret comes from an Old French term meaning to “bewail the dead.” That sounded healthy—to lament a loss, to mourn or grieve. It makes sense to grieve what one has lost. When I go through the list of my tops regrets, they are related to opportunities, decisions, behaviors that I missed, messed up or overlooked. They are gone but not forgotten, much like a loved one, even though that loved one is you.

I thought I might get further with this endeavor if I first examined why it might be valuable to hold onto my regrets. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. To show regret for having hurt others is a sign that we have a conscience; that we care about those around us; that we recognize that what we do has consequences; that the outcome of our mistakes is our responsibility.
  2. Regrets over roads-not-taken teach us what our aspirations were; they may remind us of our ideals; and those ideals may still have a place in everything we do.
  3. A closer look at the difference between our reach and our grasp may help us better understand and accept who we actually are—and that may help us bear the regrets we cannot erase.

I don’t know if my list of three ways to embrace my regrets measures up to a list of 20 ways to get rid of my regrets, but it’s what I have, thank you very much.