why we feel regret

Forget Regret!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 15 Comments

Big Hair“Non, je ne regrette rien,” Edith Piaf famously sang.

“No, there’s nothing I regret.”

If there ever were a top ten of useless, disempowering emotions, regret would be at the top of my list.

What’s the last thing you’ve regretted, lately?

Not jumping at an opportunity? Not buying a piece of equipment while it was on sale? Not making up with your partner? Not following up with a potential client?

Regret almost always starts with a question, and ends with a perhaps:

“If only… then maybe….”

“If only I had kept my big mouth shut, then maybe…”

“If only I had studied more, then maybe…”

“If only I had left the house earlier, maybe…”

Questions like that are the mental equivalent of Chinese water torture. They can haunt people until the day they die.

TURNING THE CLOCK BACK

A mother who lost her only son during the war in Iraq still believes she should have done more to talk him out of a military career.

A father believes that if only he’d shown a bit more affection, his daughter wouldn’t have become addicted to drugs.

A colleague is still upset about an important audition she lost two weeks ago. She’s sure she didn’t get the job because she couldn’t keep her nerves under control.

Here are the facts.

The producer and director thought my “nervous” colleague came across as confident. They agreed she is a very talented actress. She just didn’t have the right looks for the part.

The girl with the drug addiction thinks the world of her father. She’s in rehab, and takes full responsibility for her own actions.

Nothing could have convinced the soldier-son not to enlist. He felt a strong inner urge to serve and protect his country, and he died saving the lives of his brothers-in-arms.

HARSH JUDGEMENT

Regret is problematic, because it’s based on a harsh evaluation of the past, using the knowledge and notions we have now.

One of my friends was showing me her high school pictures, and she constantly commented on how “stupid” she looked in those “dumb clothes” her mother made her wear. She hated her glasses, and called her sixties haircut “horrendous.” Browsing through her yearbooks, pretty much every girl looked like her: big hair, weird clothes, and yes… huge frames. At that time, this was perfectly normal, even fashionable.

It’s unfair and irrational to explain or judge the past using today’s standards.

There’s another reason why we should not use what we know today, to look at yesteryear.

Present knowledge is unhelpful because it’s limited, and colored by personal ideas of how we think this world works or should work. Present knowledge doesn’t change the past one bit. It just changes our perspective.

My actress-friend was sure that her nerves caused her to lose the audition. She couldn’t be more wrong, and yet she kept on beating herself up about it day after day. It was a terrible waste of time and energy over something she couldn’t do anything about anyway: her looks.

THE PAST IS NO MORE

Regret makes you a prisoner of the past, and of your own imagination. 

The past is a given. It’s dead. What has happened, happened, and cannot be undone (the word “regret” comes from the French “regretter,” and originally meant “lamenting over the dead”).

What’s really underneath the notion of regret, is a hidden desire to control. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we secretly want the world to go one way. Our way. This manifests itself through simplistic “if this… then that”-thinking.

“If you work long and hard enough, then you’ll be successful.”

“If you treat people with respect, then they will treat you with respect too.”

“If you lead a healthy lifestyle, then you’ll live a long life.”

That would only be fair, wouldn’t it?

We all know that life isn’t fair. It just is. Bad things happen to good people, and the other way around.

The mother whose son went to war, wished she’d been able to make him change his mind. She blamed herself for failing to do that, and it made her miserable. At an unconscious level, she even felt responsible for his death, and she couldn’t shake the feeling.

I would tell her the following.

If you want to get over regret, you have to learn to accept one thing:

It’s hard enough to control oneself, let alone someone else.

People have free will, and make choices based on their ideas. Not yours.

In order to give up regret, you have to acknowledge that you’re very rarely in complete control. Without total control, you can’t be held 100% responsible for everything that happens as a result of what you did or didn’t do. Cause and effect are complicated things. 

To some, that notion is freeing. To others it is frightening.

The other “thing” we can’t control (and it’s a biggie) is the future. We can prepare for it, but we can’t bend it to our will.

Life is never a simple game of “if this”…. “then that…” The future is wide open, and filled with endless probabilities and possibilities. Literally anything can happen. It’s impossible to plan for millions of scenarios, and even the best plans fail.

MAKING CHOICES

We can only make decisions based on the information we have access to at a given point in time. The trouble is: we rarely have enough information. The info we do have might be twisted, incomplete, or downright inaccurate.

Had we known better, we’d done better, but we didn’t, so we couldn’t. 

Our actions are also directed by the resources we have available at the moment of decision. By resources I mean things like our level of intelligence, education, maturity, experience, skill set, our attitude, and what we’re physically capable of. On some days we’re more resourceful than on other days.

Whether you like it or not, life is an ongoing series of judgment calls, where a split second can mean the difference between a positive outcome, and a not so positive outcome. Quite often, these judgement calls aren’t even based on logic. We might act out of anger, frustration, guilt, or love. Some days we’re Mr. Spock. Other days we act like Captain Kirk. 

Ultimately, life itself is highly illogical, unpredictable, and random in the way it unfolds.

OFF THE HOOK

Does this mean we’re totally off the hook, and that we’re absolved of any responsibility?

I wouldn’t go that far.

We must stand behind our decisions, and accept that we are human, fallible, and that we’re never alone. Sometimes things work out the way they were planned, and quite often they do not. On occasion we get more than we bargained for, or less than we expected. 

What I am saying is that we should cut ourselves some slack. Instead of beating ourselves up over something we had little or no influence over, we should look deeper.

Sometimes, we have to go through certain experiences that don’t go as planned, so we know better next time. That’s the definition of experience. Instead of regretting what didn’t go our way, we could ask ourselves:

“What has this experience taught me that is positive?”

“What can I do differently next time, to bring about a more desired outcome?”

Once you start doing that, you stop dwelling on the past. You stop playing the blame game, so you can focus on the future.

It also helps to realize that not everything happens for a reason, or for your reasons. And at times, very good things can come out of very bad things. It may just take a while before we’re permitted to see the whole picture. 

So, the next time you feel sad or sorry about something you did or didn’t do, please be kind to yourself. Take a deep breath, and move forward. 

Always do the best you can. Some days, your best will be better than other days. That’s okay, as long as you stay in the game.

I promise you won’t regret it!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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