What Regret Wants Us to Know (And Do Now)
How facing regret now can help us settle an old score — with ourselves.
Depending on the day, I may or may not have a boatload of regret. And then depending on the day, I might have no regrets at all. I used to think regret was a useless concept. What was the point? I thought. If I couldn’t go back and change anything, what good would it serve me now to wish I’d done something differently? I’ve learned better.
Regret, n., a “pain or distress in the mind at something done or left undone,” (1500's); “weeping” (Old English), “groaning” (Old Norse).
Looking back, I harbored some deep, achey regrets for too many of my younger years — let’s see…berating myself for not calling the Broadway producer back who said he wanted to listen to my original musical (“send me your cassette, if I love it, I’ll produce it; if I don’t, I’ll tell you!”); not investing more money in my early twenties; not speaking up with conviction to a powerful TV boss who I feared (and who, twenty years later meteorically crashed down in a shocking, very public disgrace); not doing my PhD before I got into television 25 years ago…
And, my biggest regret of all…not seeing my beloved grandmother one more time before she passed.
Regret is often loaded with not’s. Roads not taken. Opportunities not pursued. Love not safeguarded. The more not’s, it seems, the more knots. This tangle of feelings and repetitive thoughts can become its own brand of regret. Dense, disillusioned, disconnected.
Regret can also get wrapped in cloaks of guilt and shame for actions we did take. The decisions we made in haste, on impulse, in fear, in spite of doubt. Because of our doubt.
The choices we made with bravado or ignorance, fantasy thinking or low risk tolerance. The things we did without insight — or foresight. And maybe that’s a clue to understanding hindsight…and the regretful pain we assign to it.
How can we lighten the heavy heart of regret?
A good entry point, no matter where we are, is to notice how we talk about the past in the present. When we begin to notice our language of regret — “I should have, I would have, I wish I could have”—we have a chance to interrupt the story we’re telling ourselves. Re-imagine it. And reframe it.
Regret can be a way of time-traveling back to a past event — today — not to ruminate, but to reintegrate disconnected parts, in the present, with all of our senses. This allows us to tenderly look to our future selves — and make a kind of pact with time.
We can call up an earlier, younger version of ourselves that did or didn’t decide, did or didn’t act, did or didn’t speak up…and reimagine that version, that indecision or action in context. Those earlier incarnations of any of us were just taking cues from our brain and body states, our stories and experiences, our old beliefs and fears, at that time.
When we can make peace with the past, we can make a pact with the future. The only place for this sacred transaction is the present.
Instead of being pulled into backward spirals of cynicism, self-denigration, and immobilizing anger toward ourselves and others, regret can spark something else: A forward spiral of hope and agency. Whatever metaphor we choose, we can work through regret by working with regret.
At its heart , regret work is grief work. Grief for all that was left unsaid, undone, unknown, untapped. Grief for all that we lost in the service of playing it safe, not feeling safe, or overlooking what needed to feel safe.
So, regret. What does it want us to know — and do — now?
Here are three metaphors for regret that can help us access its generative purpose:
Regret is a compass.
Regret tends to drive how we see. And what road we choose today. We can take the Gravel Road of Rumination, and repeat the same story, the shame story, the pain story that shrouds our unmet needs, longings, and old fears that still feel familiar. GRR doesn’t allow us to adjust our mirror to look back with open-hearted courage, eyes open, to navigate a different path forward.
Or we can take the Scenic Route of Curiosity, and listen more closely to regret as information about what we might have needed then and what we may need now. About what it took for us to survive a perilous stretch of time and place in our life — and what we had to miss in that adaptive process. With curiosity, we can soften the harsh edges of long-held regret in the place where we do our own inner peacemaking.
Regret is a barometer.
Unaddressed regret can accumulate inside us over time, and alter who we are, often without our awareness. When the pressure of regret reaches a threshold, differently for each of us, it can show up seemingly out of nowhere, like a panic, a sudden realization, or intense sapping of energy and drive.
When we think of regret as a barometer, we can become compassionately curious about how and where we may be feeling regret in our thoughts and bodies, curious about why and with whom, curious about the slow boil of stress that we may otherwise dismiss or suppress. Through practice and awareness, we can adjust our internal barometer in the present.
Regret is a teacher.
Past choices, whether deliberate or made by omission, whether passive or reactive, generative or negative, can be mined for important data. Our “should have’s and would have’s” have deep intel about who and where we were, in a given time, how we felt and thought and saw ourselves and the world, at a specific time in our lives.
Just as our stories shape us but don’t define us, our regrets can teach us…without shaming us. As we write, rewrite, and make sense of our stories, regret is a teacher. Regret, without the ‘should’, is a powerful learning outcome for our future. Even if that future is tomorrow morning.
Regret can reveal to us who and where we are right now by showing us the road we traveled to get here. Regret doesn’t have to goad us; it can guide us.
Maybe regret is tapping us on the shoulder from the backseat whispering to us, “Keep your eyes on the road, stay focused, and be present. You are here. Now.” — LH