We crucify ourselves between two thieves: regret for yesterday and fear of tomorrow.Fulton Oursler
So many regrets, so few ways to travel back in time and fix them. That’s right; I want to talk to you about regret. Regret is defined as feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or a missed opportunity. Who hasn’t experienced this? We all feel regret at some point or another. It is a sad and inescapable part of the human condition. As humans, we often carry sorrow or shame when we think of past actions or decisions that we have made.
We often hear people saying to drop all regrets, to live without them, proudly proclaiming, “No regrets!” In my opinion, this an extremely harmful viewpoint, right in line with toxic positivity (which I’ll be writing more about later). This line of thought can lead to even more guilt and shame when we inevitably experience regret in our lives. People who are regret-free seem to lack some self-awareness or are in denial about their own behaviors and feelings.
We should allow ourselves the permission to feel regret without being consumed by it. Obsessing over and replaying events in our minds can cause depression and anxiety. Unfortunately for people with brain disorders, we sometimes can’t always control this. Certain mental disorders, like OCD, ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD, cause rumination and obsessive and intrusive thoughts. This means that our brains tend to focus on and revel in the bad things that we’ve done; laser focusing on the feelings of shame, embarrassment, or emotional pain that we get from regret and reminding us of all the things that we should have done differently. That said, living inside of our regret can keep us from being able to move forward in life.
I try my best to live my life as a good person and to not hurt others, though I’m sure that I don’t always succeed. My moral compass is well established at this point in my life and when I violate that compass, it eats at me. A lot of my regrets, though, don’t have a lot to do with those violations. Most of them have to do with things that hurt me or things I can no longer change.
My beloved little dog died when my daughter was 2. I had her for fifteen years and I loved her well and deeply. When I think of her now, all I can do is question if she knew how much I loved her. A new baby robbed a lot of the attention for those last couple of years and my poor puppy got older and sicker. Instead of remembering all the sweet times that I had with her and everything that she did for me, I replay the day they put her down in my head, over and over…the life leaving her little body was almost more than I could bear.
I think of my grandpa who died of cancer 3 years ago. The grief in just knowing he was going to die was more than I could handle. I was in denial of how sick he was and how quickly he would leave us. I couldn’t believe it; wouldn’t believe it. So, I stayed away. If I didn’t go there, if I didn’t visit, if I didn’t tell him goodbye then it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t live my day to day life under the crushing knowledge that we were going to lose him, so my brain switched it off. It wasn’t real. I will carry it for the rest of my life; always worried that he thought I didn’t love him. I did; he was an anchor in my life, and to the rest of my family, and we have all been adrift since he left. Regret.
Sometimes, we can fix what we broke
When I feel regret for something that I did and I can still change it, I try to do that. In my 20s, I ended an extremely close friendship. I can’t explain all of the reasons why because, honestly, they were stupid. I let an outside influence get into my head and make me believe that it wasn’t a friendship worth having, so I just walked away. No explanation, no exit statement…I just walked away. For years, it plagued me. I never felt right about what I did. After about 10 years, I started thinking about it a lot. The friend and I had made it back onto acquaintance terms and we had a lot of mutual friends. She started to be on my mind a lot and the guilt and shame were intense. I was wrong and I knew it.
I eventually brought it up in therapy and what happened surprised even me. I started talking about my old friend and what had happened and, before I knew it, I was hysterical. I couldn’t even get the words out. When our friendship ended, she was clearly going through something, though I wasn’t sure what. That presented itself in sometimes grumpy and hateful ways. Instead of being there for her, helping her get to the bottom of it, I used those behaviors as an excuse to cut off the friendship. I couldn’t let it stand. I had to make things right.
So, after ten years of almost no communication, we got together for dinner one night and I apologized. I told her how wrong I was and how sorry I was that I had hurt her. It was important to me that she understood that she hadn’t done anything wrong; I had. I had no expectations from that conversation, but I was lucky because she accepted my apology. She hugged my neck tight and told me that she loved me and forgave me. It was more than I deserved. We talk regularly, to this day.
Not all regrets are forever. We might regret our poor behavior and our bad decisions, but some of those behaviors are mendable. It’s never too late to do the right thing and your regrets and shame are your brain’s way of telling you to get to it! You sometimes have to swallow some pride and some fear, but it’s never a bad idea to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”
Letting go of the fear
I talked to Dr. W about this in our last appointment. Yesterday I posted about Imposter Syndrome and how the boardroom in my head is constantly telling me I’m not good enough, smart enough, capable enough to move inside of success. It wasn’t until the last session that I started to put things together. She thinks these regrets that are eating at me are part of the Imposter Syndrome. She asked me if these intrusive thoughts popped up when I’m feeling good or feeling like things are going well for me. I couldn’t give her a good answer because I’ve honestly never paid that much attention to the timing of them; to engrossed with the intense emotions they bring. Right now, I’m dealing with a lot of heavy stuff, but I also have a lot of good happening right now too. Namely, this blog, for instance.
For all of my life I have been simultaneously afraid of failure, afraid of success, and afraid that if I do succeed, I won’t be able to maintain it. I’ve always had big dreams and I would try to go for it, but only just a little. I used to be an actress…or, I guess I wanted to be an actress. I would take an acting course, but not get an agent or headshots. Or I would get an agent, go on one audition and then find every excuse in the world to take a break for 6 months or a year, sometimes longer. It was always one step forward and two steps back. It’s been the same story with writing. Start the blog, get freaked out, quit the blog (like I did last year). It’s all because I am perpetually terrified of succeeding and not succeeding, all at once. If I don’t try, I can’t do either, right?
I digress. Dr. W thinks the regret that is eating at me and the Imposter Syndrome that I’m battling are one in the same problem. It’s my brain’s way of snatching me back to a comfortable place of mediocrity, guilt, shame, and pain. Emotional pain is a familiar, if uncomfortable, place for me. In the most important ways, it’s all I’ve ever known. Her advice to me was to keep pushing through it; to keep telling the boardroom full of voices to shut their mouths because I’m in charge here. They shouldn’t hold sway over me any longer. I agree with her. It’s time to clear them out. They’ve been there for far too long and done far too much damage.
I’m sort of a word nerd, so this year I decided not to make New Year’s resolutions or even yearly goals. This year I decided to pick one word and one object to set the tone for the rest of the year. My word of the year this year was “RISE” and my object, a lotus flower. The point of this is, it’s okay to make room for your regrets. Allow yourself to learn from them and be gentle with yourself when you have them because wisdom will rise from the muddy waters of regretful choices and actions, just like the lotus. We all make mistakes; no one lives regret-free, but it is up to us what we do with and about those regrets.
Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight!
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