Regret is one of those funny things that lingers a long time if you don’t deal with it, sometimes forever. We tell ourselves that time will help us get over things from the past, but regret is immune to time. It only grows with the passing of time, as it crystallizes our feelings of sadness, disappointment, shame and grief. It taints our views of our life, and settles into a long-term unhappiness for what we never made happen in our lives previously.
Forms of Regret
Regret can come in all shapes and sizes. It can come in any particular event in our lives, with the death of someone close to us, with a divorce, with our children leaving for college, or with missed opportunities that we didn’t take earlier in our lives.
It can come in the form of things not said when they needed to be said, at missed opportunities with people in our lives. It’s often difficult to say what we need to say when the time is ripe to say it, and when the moment or moments pass, we create regret for ourselves by not expressing ourselves in the moment.
Regret can also come in the forms of things we left unfulfilled in our lives, from not taking jobs we should have taken, to interests and hobbies we failed to invest in, to relationship partners that we let go in our lives. Regret is the byproduct of risk never taken, and the result of fear dominating us at the time we didn’t put ourselves out there in our lives.
Ruminating, or constantly thinking about what wasn’t done or said, is another form regret takes. It’s when you live in the past, always thinking about the situation in which caused the regret and not allowing yourself to move forward. When you are stuck in thinking constantly about the regret, it can mean that you’re not allowing yourself to deal with the painful feelings associated with your grief underneath it.
I think that we think, as men, that if we can come up with a “solution” to our regret – which we won’t or else we would have already – that we’ll be at peace when we figure it out. In fact, constantly thinking or ruminating about our regret is an avoidance from the pain of our regret.
Regret can also arise in the form of the self-critic, where you beat yourself up, guilt yourself, or shame yourself for things you hadn’t done or said in the past. You may not recognize it as regret, and in fact, you may have tried over the years to “right the wrong,” and completely change around your behavior to prevent from another regret-inducing decision from happening. But, that doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the original regret.
Quieting the self-critic, and working through the difficult emotions associated with regret are ways to start to work through the regret. Communicating with someone close to you, journalling, writing letters to those associated with your regret, or getting therapy to help you work through the blocks of regret are ways to help yourself work through the regret and free yourself from the painful past.
Coming to Terms with the Past
Dealing with grief is a way to get over regret. I think unfulfilled expectations are just as powerful as sources of grief as can be the loss of people in our lives. When we deal with regret, it’s helpful to see what we regret as being a loss, like a death in a sense.
For men who don’t want to deal with the past, this can be a major obstacle towards dealing with regret. A lot of times, I hear, “the past is the past, so why should I spend any time or energy worrying about it?” I think it’s valuable to deal with the issues of the past so that they can lift us out of that past, setting us on a course towards happiness today, and into the future. If we avoid dealing with the past, it just gives that regret energy, forcing it back into our minds and allowing it more time to grow.
Communicating with people can be a powerful way to work through regret. Having difficult conversations, and owning or taking responsibility for your failures, and letting the people know who were a part of those failures, can be a way to put to rest regrets that you might be harboring. In fact, they may alter the course of your relationships for the better if you take the risk to work through your regrets of the past.
Some examples of dealing with regret:
- Letting your children know your regrets about what you failed to do/say/be to them while they were growing up
- Communicating with old partners or spouses what you didn’t do or wished you’d done in your relationship with them (you might want to first communicate with your current spouse that you want to do this, as to not cause further disruptions)
- Working to let yourself off the hook by dealing with shame, anger, sadness, grief or failure
Regret is not always easy to work on, and may require professional help, but it can be worked through and doesn’t have to dominate your experience and your life. You can learn to work through the pain of regret and unfulfilled exceptions, so that you can more fully live in the present and be more available to yourself, and to others, in your life today.