What is Regret?
Regret, the feeling of remorse, the emotion that stirs controversy. The question of whether regret is a positive or negative emotion in our lives continues to be bantered. In my practice I have witnessed many views by my patients on their feelings of regret. Many individuals perceive regret as an unhealthy feeling. Their belief, likely carried over from their upbringing as well as religious institutions are that one should have no regret. Many quotes are focused on this premise. “I have no regrets in my life, I think everything that happens to you happens for a reason” Rita Mero. There are numerous quotes focusing on issues of, “One should not beat themselves up over the past,” “Do not crucify yourself,” and on and on. On the other side of the regret camp we have those that feel strongly about the importance of learning from regret. Regret is necessary to make change and grow in your life. In the movie “the Big Kahuna,” Danny DeVito is defending his friend Kevin Spacey on the issues of past atrocities and how one develops character. In this process a young Christian salesman struggles with the concept. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PkOc-B64dY
The confusion and differences are founded in a rigid belief paradigm. First we must define how we perceive regret and how does one deal or not deal with this feeling. If one ruminates, and ponders their past regrets daily, weekly prohibiting them from learning and then allowing themselves to stay mired in depression regret is clearly bad for self growth, for there is no self growth. The gambler who loses a large sum of money has minimal to no regret and rationalizes that the next hand being dealt or the next sporting event will win him his money back. His addiction and rationalization prevents him from focusing on regret to move to the next step of change in behavior. Regret can most definitely build character. Regret can be a motivator for change. Regret can be detrimental by one allowing it to all encompassing. Regret that is ruminated on will become the cracked foundation for a home that houses a less than adequate self esteem. To understand regret is to understand we all make mistakes and that we can rectify those mistakes to be a better human being and a better spouse, parent and friend. Recognizing regret is made up of honesty, introspection, and humility. To make regret work for you one must be honest with one’s mistakes, introspect and be aware of possibly repeating a pattern of mistakes, and acknowledge humility that we are all human and we will all experience some degree of regret.
How do you learn from Regret?
Many patients ask me how to let go of regret. In order to let go of something you must learn why and how to hang on. Hang on for dear life, and why do we hang onto regret? Some of us hang onto regret because it reinforces a negative opinion of ourselves, others hang on for they are too fearful to move forward, and yet others hang on to regret because they may get secondary gain from discussing it. Learning how to hold onto a bowling ball is as important as the release of the ball. The same is true with regret. When we find out how and why a certain person holds onto regret the release is much easier. In fact it may be a very quick release.
One needs to feel comfortable with grieving, apologies, and realizing that the apology is just as important for you, as it is for the person you are apologizing to. Many times we apologize expecting a certain response from the one we are apologizing to. The apology should stem from honesty, remorse, and a genuine recognition of the role one might of played and the hurt involved. Remember an apology does not guarantee an acceptance, and that IS okay.
One should be aware that if you are hanging onto regret it is most likely serving an unhealthy purpose in your life. All the more reason to let go, learn and move forward with change.
To all those who deny they have any regrets. The basis for this foundation, is either you are too young to formulate enough experiences of regret or one is so self absorbed and narcissistic they cannot allow themselves to see their mistakes as their false-ego is so protected and defended.
In relationships, the degree of regret appears to be proportionate to the length of time and closeness of the relationship. As well as recognition of hurt, and the doing of “wrong” to another. However, some argue that regret in relationships does not need a foundation of time and closeness. Regret is a byproduct of parental teachings, role models, a sense of morality, and a sense of what is wrong and right with fellow human beings. Whatever the foundational principles are, regret can and should be beneficial. Individuals that are on a path of peace and healing should recognize regret and how it can motivate change and help one become a better person. To not admit regret is to harbor ourselves in either depression or self love, there does not appear to be much middle ground here. As my favorite philospher states, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” H.D. Thoreau.