I have lived a blessed life with so much to be grateful for. Perhaps naturally, my regrets are limited not to any major life decision but rather rest almost exclusively in the domain of how and when I showed up for other people.
Generally speaking I’d like to consider myself a pretty decent human being yet there are times when I have not been decent to others. I like to consider myself the type of person that would show up for a person in their time of need, but I can recall specific moments in my life when I definitely did not. While kind by nature, I have hurled hurtful, perhaps even cruel invectives at those I purported to care for.
I imagine that those I love consider me to be a good son, brother, uncle, husband, father, and friend. Yet I recall with certainty moments and times that I could have been better in each and every one of those roles.
I deeply regret those instances when I failed others. Specific moments of regret are written into the handful of memories that comprise my book of life – never to be erased, always to be carried with me.
Regret is powerful. Beyond a fleeting feeling it is actually a deep emotion. Its etymology shares a root word meaning “to weep.” It is also closely linked to “pain, distress, and grieving.”
There is a line of thinking that says we should live a life of no regrets. The implication suggests that regrets are a non-essential negative emotion that holds us back.
Yet most experts believe that there is an evolutionary purpose to regret. It serves as a vital learning mechanism that prevents us from repeating our mistakes.
Dr. Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at Duke University, said in this New York Times feature that explored whether other animals experience regret (they do) – “I can well imagine that regret would be highly advantageous evolutionarily, so long as one doesn’t obsess over it, as in depression,”
And there lies the rub. To experience regret demonstrates a capacity for growth. Having self-awareness of when we could or should have done better is an obvious sign of our decency. No one is perfect, we all fall short of our own ideals. Our regret is an acknowledgment of our weakness and imperfection.
To live without regret would seem to be a futile exercise in self-deception. At the same time to wallow in it is to defeat its purpose, as it does not allow us to grow.
If you have regrets about how you’ve treated others. then you must acknowledge your responsibility and capacity to have done better. This first step is crucial. But like all first steps, it must be followed by others, or else we never really move forward. There are seldom opportunities for do-overs or take backs in life. There is only moving forward and trying to do better.
In the words of Thoreau, “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.”
Own your regrets. Learn from each of them. Only then are you likely to have fewer of them in the future.