If who we are is an aggregation of all of our past experiences, then to regret something is to hate a part of ourselves. Mistakes are a part of life. Failures are a part of life. We all hurt people some time and we usually feel justified in doing it. The question is whether we process and grow from our mistakes, failures and pains, or if we wallow in them — use them to hold ourselves down rather than build ourselves up.
The pain is OK. Wanting to change the past is not.
I’ve had plenty of things to regret in my life — getting arrested and kicked out of school as a teenager, wasting thousands of hours on videos games and marijuana, being too nervous to tell girls how I felt about them, saying and doing hurtful things to my mother and father, not being there for a friend when he died, breaking my girlfriend’s trust, losing and letting go of good friendships and holding on too long to bad ones.
But I don’t regret anything. Those experiences make me who I am today and to take them back is to wish a part of myself away. Who am I to know whether my life would be any better without those mistakes? My mistakes and failings have been my greatest teachers, my greatest strengths. Why should I trade them back?
Regret disassociates a part of yourself. It creates shame because it denies an aspect of your identity. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your mistakes. Care about them, but accept them. Don’t hate yourself with them. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Feel the pain, but then grow from it.
Some ideas on how to get over regret:
1. Self Acceptance — we all screw up, get used to it. You’re human, and sometimes you are disgusting and reprehensible. We all are. This isn’t a justification for failures and bad behavior, it’s merely acceptance that this is a part of all of us. We’re animals and we’re all pretty ignorant. To expect perfection out of ourselves is both unreasonable and a one-way ticket to self-loathing. Accept that you’re not perfect. Accept that you screwed up and that it’s totally reasonable given the circumstances.
2. Learn from your mistakes — find the lessons and act on them. Every mistake, failure or fuck up has a silver-lining to it, a lesson that can propel you into becoming a better person. Find that nugget, use it, ride it. I did and thought a lot of sleazy stuff when I was involved in the pick up artist stuff. But despite that phase of sleaziness, it led me to becoming more comfortable with my sexuality, more confident around women and working through a lot of my emotional baggage. It also indirectly lead me to starting an online business. Sure, there were probably healthier and more efficient ways to get that stuff handled, but I came out all right.
If you have a habit of telling your boss to go fuck himself, then use it as an opportunity to learn how to manage your emotions. If you haven’t talked to your brother in eight years because of a fight you had over crashing mom’s car, call him, apologize and use it as an opportunity to confront your past familial issues. If you spend most of your time watching Jersey Shore reruns, then use it as an opportunity to learn how to tie a good strong noose and hang yourself. There’s a lesson to be learned in everything.
3. Share your regret openly — ask for forgiveness. Regret is a form of shame. Shame holds us back, creates feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and depression. Shame interferes with our ability to connect with others, leads us to distrust others and sabotages our relationships. But shine light on it and it evaporates. Share your shame with the world and own it. Yes, this will be about as fun as drinking a glass of dish soap, but it’s necessary. Share your regrets. State them openly. And if necessary, ask for forgiveness. Do everything in your power to right what you feel is wrong and then feel satisfied that you did all that’s in your power.
And don’t forget, sometimes (usually) the person we actually seek forgiveness from is ourselves.
4. Question the belief that underlies the regret. A lot of regret and shame comes from beliefs or dogma that does not help us or was installed in us at an early age. People with strict a religious upbringing often feel regret over the most PG-13 of sexual encounters. People who can’t handle criticism themselves regret the slightest of confrontations with those close to them. People blame themselves for occurrences completely out of their control and then hate themselves for years over it.
A friend of mine drowned at a party when I was 19. I was not close enough to jump into the water and help him. I don’t blame myself for that. There’s no way I could have known. I had no responsibility to be by the water at all times while he was swimming. And even if I had been there, there’s no guarantee I would have been able to save him.
I fought with the regret of not being there for him for months after it happened. Even writing about it now brings up a little pain in me. But the underlying belief is ludicrous. It’s completely unreasonable to suspect that I can be there for every terrible thing that ever happens to the people I care about and unfair to myself to hold myself responsible for such an unreasonable expectation.
Instead, I eventually replaced that belief with this one: people die. It can happen at any time. And some times it’s not anyone’s fault. I could go at any minute. So could you. Regret will never change that. All we can do is look ahead and using the lessons from our past failures, control our actions going forward to the best of our abilities.