“Live life with no regrets.”
“Regret is a form of punishment itself.”
“In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”
“No regrets in life, just lessons learned.”
“Appreciate everything, regret nothing.”
“Regret” has become a dirty word in our culture, or at least in my generation. To look back and regret poor behavior, bad decisions or hurtful ways is discouraged on the whole because, “Everything that happened got me where I am today,” or, “I had to learn those lessons to become the best version of me,” or some similar justification.
I have to be frank: to me, those justifications are flimsy and a little self-absorbed.
Dwelling on regrets is not helpful, nor is lifelong self-flagellation on the heels of regrettable actions. Yet acknowledging that we did things we wish we had not because we know it was ultimately not in alignment with our own values or integrity is, in my opinion, essential for the personal development we claim to want.
You can’t be your “best self” if you don’t hold yourself accountable. Denying or rationalizing your own transgressions is a surefire way to an existential crisis or identity conflict.
Regrets are often more palpable on the heels of a loss. For many, this loss can be the time when their children leave home for college or work, leaving the parent recognizing that their “parenting years” are basically done, and that their relationship with their kids was not what they wanted it to be. For many, the loss is the death of a loved one.
After my mother died, I experience deep regret for having criticized her relentlessly for much of my life. We had a good relationship overall, but I corrected her, questioned her, and criticized most of what she did (or did not do). “Mom, why are you doing that?” “Jeez, mom, stop!” “Mom, maybe you should do this instead of that,” and on and on.
My gut churned for months as I thought, “Why couldn’t you have just let her be??” The timing of this regret coincided with the onset of the teen years of my own sons, who correct or question me daily. I am so aware of how hurtful this can be (though of course, quite expected from teenagers) and I hate to think I did the same to my own beloved mother. Sadly for me, those criticisms didn’t end once I became an adult.
I can say with absolutely no reservations that I regret criticizing my mother. There is no justification, no way of making it right now. There is no way I can think of that and believe something like, “No regrets in life, just lessons learned.” I have had to reconcile this with myself and my God.
Why am I sharing this?
Because I believe that acknowledging regret can, in fact, be deeply healing, and that denying regrets can cause a great deal of pain an internal conflict.
Hopefully there are lessons (I am way more intentional about reserving criticisms of my loved ones), but for many of these regrets, we really wish he had done it differently to begin with. I can have a better relationship with my loved ones for the rest of my life, but I can never have a better relationship with my mother now.
So then what?
I think there is tremendous value in taking stock of what you may regret doing (or not doing) in your life thus far, both past and present. Look at your actions through the lens of the values you hold dear, and note where they aren’t in alignment.
This can be painful and humbling. I believe it is best done with the support of a therapist or pastor or other trusted confidante. But that is an individual choice.
Consider the above and see if it rings true for you. If you find yourself angry at this, dig a little deeper. Admitting regrets to yourself does not mean you ought to feel shame; we are human, we misstep and mistake all of the time. To deny this reality does not change that fact but owning it can empower you to be a stronger person and quite literally your “best self.”