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  • Writer's pictureGary Lougher

Reinvention, Not Resolutions, Day 10: Using Regret to Get Your Past Out of the Future

One of the things I'm most scared of, at least consciously, is being on my deathbed full of regret. To create the highest probability of this not happening, when I'm faced with important decisions, I ask myself, "What am I least likely to regret when I'm on my deathbed?" But as helpful as this exercise can be, I don't always get it right. I don't have a crystal ball or perfect information, so my moves don't always work out for the better. And frankly, some days, I'm just more of a risk taker than others or get lazy and don't think things through. And some days, I'm just not the best version of myself, and like most humans, I do/say things I'd like to take back, hurt others, my ego gets the best of me, and I miss opportunities to listen or act in support of another or myself.

These are all very human things to do, and it's important that we a) realize that and b) figure out how to best move forward from those things. Unresolved regret can:

  • affect how we see ourselves and our life story, which can lead to a diminished sense of self-worth or identity

  • lead to persistent rumination and intrusive thoughts, which can be distressing and debilitating.

Both of these can hinder our success in achieving goals or keep us from trying at all. For example, if we feel distressed over past failures, we can not try to avoid that distress all over...even though we're still living with it.

The first thing we need to do is be honest with ourselves and admit that we have regrets. Then we can begin.

Next, figure out what they are, look for patterns and common root causes.

Look at your bucket list, goals, or whatever you choose to call them. How long have you been putting things off? Why are you doing that? Pick one and do it. Start a new story about how crossing things off your bucket list is "like you".

Strained relationships? Consider setting out to create new possibilities for that relationship. Could you be blaming the other(s) because you're afraid to look honestly at your role? Where can forgiveness help? Do you need to forgive yourself for judging them? You may be surprised at how much the other really, really needs you to move first on this and just reach out. Going first requires humility and courage and is a great act of service.

Missed opportunities? Go back to school, learn a hobby, get a new job, start a business, take the leap, and make a change. Most people regret the things they didn't do more than what they did do. Just start.

And for regrets where our actions/inactions affect another, sincere apologies are nice for expressing regret about that. But, you know what? They get old and meaningless. Yes, everybody makes mistakes. Yes, everybody has blind spots about how their actions affect others. However, repeated acts of disrespect require a behavioral modification...or at least a move in that direction. Everything else is lip service. Also useful to turn this in on ourselves. How often do we not do what we said and tell ourselves, "It's okay. We'll start tomorrow".

Developing a better relationship with regret is a key to reinvention. It's a step in moving ourselves forward while practicing self-compassion and forgiveness, and acknowledging our humanity. It was the most gut-wrenching thing I've ever done, and it's never really over. Growth is a continuous process, and dealing with regret is a catalyst. Once framed properly, regret frees us from ruminating about the past so we can flourish in the present. And our future is created by how we spend the present.

I think reading what the poet David Whyte wrote about regret when I was going through this would have made it a little less "gut-wrenching". Bless the poets!

An excerpt from the poem "Regret" by David Whyte


is a short, evocative and achingly beautiful word; an elegy to lost possibilities even in its brief annunciation, it is also a rarity and almost never heard except where the speaker insists that they have none, that they are brave and forward-looking and could not possibly imagine their life in any other way than the way it is. To admit regret is to understand we are fallible: that there are powers in the world beyond us: to admit regret is to lose control not only of a difficult past but of the very story we tell about our present; and yet strangely, to admit sincere and abiding regret is one of our greatest but unspoken contemporary sins.

The rarity of honest regret may be due to our contemporary emphasis on the youthful perspective; it may be that a true, useful regret is not a possibility or a province of youth; that it takes a hard-won maturity to experience the depths of regret in ways that do not overwhelm and debilitate us but put us into a proper, more generous relationship with the future. Except for brief senses of having missed a tide, having hurt another, having taken what is not ours, youth is not yet ready for the rich current of abiding regret that runs through and emboldens a mature human life.

Sincere regret may in fact be a faculty for paying attention to the future, for sensing a new tide where we missed a previous one, for experiencing timelessness with a grandchild where we neglected a boy of our own. To regret fully is to appreciate how high the stakes are in even the average human life. Fully experienced, regret turns our eyes, attentive and alert to a future possibly lived better than our past.

Excerpted from ‘Regret”


The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.

2015 © David Whyte:

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