At first consideration, regret may not top the list of things we’re inherently grateful for. But Kriste Peoples begs to differ (and we just might, too).
Michael was “The One” who got away. Michael was smart, funny, affectionate, and ready to commit. I, however, wasn’t. Michael was wildly creative, outgoing, and open to the world where I was shy and retreating. Michael was a great actor and craftsman; he recited Shakespeare and drove an old red truck he hauled his inscrutably mannish things around in. Michael was good at numbers and had hands that could build anything he put them to. Michael was an expert swimmer. And a chef. And a translator. And a dog whisperer. And a mountaineer. Michael had it all. And the day I let him drive off—headed west without me on the old motorbike he built from scratch with nothing more than scrap metal and determination—I knew I’d made the biggest mistake of my young life and would never find a love like his again. Ever.
When viewed through the lens of time and longing, regret can take on legendary proportions in our minds that not only obscure the facts as they were, but can also keep us looking back in ways that stunt our growth and dim our chances at future happiness—and peace.
Despite many of the common associations we make, regret offers us countless opportunities to heal the past and open to love and possibility where it may have seemed none existed before. If you’ve ever found yourself blindsided by ghosts and regrets of your old relationships, I’d like to offer a few shifts in perspective to help you look lovingly at your past, embrace any perceived mistakes, and grow in the direction your life is calling you toward now.
Regret lives in and out of the moment.
While regret is an experience of the past because it references our histories, we also breathe new life into those stories every time we lend drama and energy to them. (See my opening paragraph for illustrative purposes.) Athletes, neurologists, creative visualizers, and anyone who works with mental imagery knows that the brain doesn’t distinguish between past, present, real, or imagined experiences in ways we often think it does. Just ask anyone within earshot of my Michael stories: they’d have assumed my pain had occurred within the hour and not more than a decade ago.
The next time you’re inclined to whip your regret into dramatic proportions, help yourself by taking an honest look at the roles you played in the past. Being able to pull out of the pain I stirred up every time I talked about Michael helped me see that neither of us was ready for a serious relationship at the time, and that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Accepting this fact freed me up to live increasingly in the moment and relieved me of the need to hold myself hostage to the past.
Regret grows in the dark.
Just like mold—and shame—regret counts on our secrecy, denial, and silence in order to thrive and spread. Put another way, the longer we refuse to be accountable for our actions and acknowledge the range of our emotions in their fullness, the more distance we place between ourselves and our healing.
Shame and regret aren’t easy to surmount, mainly because it’s hard to be vulnerable. Regret preys on our fears and insecurities and makes us feel unworthy of the love we seek. “See?” it says, “You blew it with so-and-so, so what makes you think you’ll ever get it right?” Regret backs us into tough emotional corners, compromises our ability to communicate clearly, and obliterates our sense of self if we’re not careful.
Help yourself out of hard emotional places by being kind to yourself when regret threatens to derail your sense of self. Ask for help from someone you trust to listen without judgment. If you’re feeling afraid, simply begin by naming the feeling. It might not seem like much, but the act of naming your pain goes a long way toward ensuring you won’t become a victim of it.
Regret takes inventory.
Remember every time you were awkward, said the wrong thing, got dumped, or showed up looking like a loser in the eyes of the person you wanted? If you’ve ever been caught in the grip of regret, then your answer will be a resounding ‘Yes’ on this one. That’s because regret not only brings our missteps into sharp focus, but it also calls in every false start and failure to join in, too. Regret is particularly unforgiving in this way.
Speaking of forgiveness…
The next time regret gangs up on you and features every imaginable mental image of you at your worst, help yourself by taking a new approach to the onslaught. Rather than fight it or respond in an act of self-sabotage that only reinforces the dismal pictures, bring forgiveness into the pictures instead. Practice seeing yourself as a character in a movie. Try learning from the parts you played and embrace the lessons they’re trying to teach you in every scene. As you get your information, express gratitude as you’re able to.
This gentle practice gradually diminishes the power of regret as you learn to take your power back from it.
Regret teaches us.
Learning to reclaim our power from the clutches of regret helps us cultivate compassion for ourselves and each other in all of our interactions, romantic and otherwise. When we slow down long enough to become present to the thoughts we think and the emotions we harbor, we give ourselves permission to get curious about what’s happening with us and frees us to move on with clarity and intention.
Living into the lessons of regret helps us see ourselves in surprising ways. When I finally tired of telling the Michael story, I realized that not only had I wasted way too much time on old stories that went nowhere, but I also recognized the impossible pedestal I put him on—not to mention the ditch I put me in as a result. Held captive by regret, I believed I’d never luck up on anyone who’d ever love me as much as he did. But as I opened to the many lessons those regrets held for me, I saw that I was indeed lovable and owed it to myself to express that loving nature more often.
Regret is a gift.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Make the most of your regrets. Never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.” Equally important is to accept its invitation to change and evolve into the people we know we’re capable of being at heart. Recognizing the gift of regret is an ongoing process of allowing, letting go, and living in the present. It’s not easy, but as Thoreau reminds us, it’s a worthwhile journey. After all, he writes, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.”