Regrets? I have many. You probably do too. Some I can live with more easily. Others keep me restless and breathless, with a lump in my throat and a racing heart. Why are some regrets more difficult than others? And how can we stop being overwhelmed by regrets?
Regrets are human, and they can be powerful. If not managed carefully, they can cause self-loathing, anxiety and depression.
A lot of the changes we make come from lessons we learn. But regrets can also make us feel stuck and block us from growing and fulfilling our potential.
Some regrets make us believe we have no right to growth, happiness, peace and purpose – because we are bad.
You and I have disappointments in our lives. Indeed, some may still be coming our way. We may be sorry for what we have (not) done or said; disappointed, ashamed, guilty, remorseful, embarrassed, angry and hopeless.
If you think about your own experiences, then you may recognise there are different types of situations, you may feel regretful about.
I can think of at least four types of regrets. Do you recognise any of these in your life?
Things did not go our way because we took a wrong turn, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was not premeditated. It happened without much thought.
Yet, depending on what happened, these peripheral regrets can still be powerful and hurt.
Relationships, work, health, the life choices we make, these all underpin our foundation: our sense of self, purpose and view on life, our safety, well-being and happiness.
Sorrow over wrong choices made in any of these fundamental areas can run deep and be very intense.
3. Regrets and Age
The older we get, the more unhappy outcomes and turns in our life we may have accumulated. And with that, the more persistent fundamental regrets get. They have shaped our life and who we are. They have a way of coming back into our memory and can fuel moments of self pity and pain.
Perhaps it is because with age we may have a greater sense of time. And the time we have to shape some fundamentals of our life is getting shorter and we have less time to enjoy them. Then wrong choices and lost opportunities can stare us in the face on a regular basis.
(By the way: Achieving positive change does not have to take long. Youth may be overrated. Does quality or quantity matter? Just some thoughts …)
4. Regrets and Death
These are situations when we can no longer explain, do or undo, say sorry to another who has died. Indeed, we can no longer give that person a chance to make peace with us. Neither can we make peace with them. That opportunity has gone, for good. But that is not to say, we cannot make peace within ourselves. We can. But it is not always easy.
Similarly, we may be facing our own mortality and realise, that some things will never happen for us. It is a sad loss. There’s no two ways about it.
Are Regrets Helpful?
Regretting what we did (not) do goes hand in hand with our awareness that actions have consequences. It can be a sign of our conscience.
Sometimes it can also be a result of a more selfish recognition, that things did not work out in our best interest.
What we do about it, that’s what matters.
Many an important life lesson and positive change can grow out of regrets.
Feeling the pain and remorse can be responsible, but unhelpful if not followed up with appropriate action.
Why do some regrets hurt more than others?
You may agree, that some disappointments and mistakes are easier to rationalise than others. The difference is about the level of ’emotional pull’ these regrets may have:
- if related to loss and death
- when not a lot else can make things better or undo what has happened
- events that have shaped a long period of our life
You will have your own stories and experiences.
Those are the kinds of regrets, we may be able to rationalise really well. Yet, they can cause an intense, almost existential, pain, that can be very powerful and deeply affect the way we feel.
How to handle regrets
Regrets can be slippery and seductive.
They can have the power to turn our world into a bleak place, with little hope, self respect or trust. Then, shame and defeatism rule.
Regrets should not rule us. Neither should we use regrets as a conscious or unconscious excuse to stand still for too long, and waste possibilities we may have and the ones we can create.
Acting on regrets, responsibly and fairly towards others and most of all towards ourselves, that’s what matters.
When regrets keep coming back
When the same regrets keep coming back, again and again, or hit us hard out of nowhere, then this can be a sign that we are going through a difficult patch, which may make us vulnerable to negative thoughts and feelings, or the sense of disappointment is related to an event in our life, that we have not yet dealt with properly.
In that way, feeling regretful can be an important sign of what might be going on, and that there is something we need to deal with.
Contrary to popular belief, letting go of regrets in a responsible way, is not the easy way out.
It is an important part of self-care, requires self-reflection and facing some uncomfortable truths, like:
- injustice, about the hurt we may have caused others.
- the hurt we feel inside.
- the fact that we are fallible and can make mistakes, even when we could have known better.
Sometimes I wallow in my regrets, and I know when that happens. And there are times, when I do not stop it, for a while. Don’t ask me why. Regrets can be very convincing.
But eventually, I have a word in my ear and pull myself out of it. I try to remind myself, that I did the best I could.
And sometimes I messed up.
I accept that.
Next time you are in a regretful mood
Pay attention to your body. The lump in your throat, the tightness in your stomach and sometimes tears of anger or sadness? That’s how it can go for me.
And what do you think about then? The present, the future or the past?
While understanding, accepting and learning from the past is essential, regrets can keep us imprisoned in the past.
Being stuck there, is not helpful and often not fair to our abilities and potential.
Regrets are human, we need to learn to live with them in peace – side by side. @KarinSieger (Click to Tweet!)
Karin Sieger is a UK-based psychotherapist and writer specialising in personal transitions, endings, making peace and the emotional impact of cancer, for which Karin has been treated herself. She does her writing on her orange houseboat in London. Karin posts regularly on her website KarinSieger.com. You can sign up for her Newsletter, follow her on Twitter and Facebook or connect via LinkedIn.
Image courtesy of apic.