Archive for August, 2021

Regret is generally futile

Very few people I have met truthfully echo the words that Edith Piaf sang, ‘Je ne regrette rien’, about their own life. At least Frank Sinatra made it, ‘Regrets I have a few, but then again, too few to mention’. My preferred rendition is, ‘Regrets I have aplenty, but they’re behind me’. What’s done is done.

There is a variety of wishful thinking that illustrates what seems a common human trait: a person thinks, ‘if I can just have/do/experience this, I’ll be happy’. It may work for a while but in terms of your overall existence, it never, ever works. No life is that simple. It is also akin to the notion that is behind all regrets – ‘if I had only done this/not done that, then everything would be fine’. Except there is absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case. There is no way of knowing it would have turned out the way the person thinks when they look back with their rose-tinted glasses. The ‘if only’ thing simply does not work. Even if you have the time travel kit that gets you back there to make your different decision, your making a different decision is only part of the story. Others might make different decisions too, events may take a different turn, and the end result might be that you find yourself exactly where you are now, or at least feeling no happier.

The variety of regret that relates to having hurt someone else is something I think is worth looking at in a slightly different way, though not with a view to trying to change the past. If the person you hurt 25 years ago is still on the planet and you can reach them, apologising for having hurt them is something you can do, which may help with healing both a part of them and a part of you. If the person is no longer alive, then my approach is to visualise a conversation with them in which you apologise and where you try to feel the feelings around the event as authentically as you possibly can. It may or may not help you, but it is worth a try. Certainly, there are psychotherapists who recommend this as a way of managing emotions that refer back to some kinds of past pain.

So, at the risk of being boringly pragmatic, I would insist on the veracity of the old adage, ‘Change what you can, accept what you can’t change and have the wisdom to know the difference’. That may seem dry and unhelpful to the person feeling the pain of regret for parts of their past, but I have yet to encounter someone who has found it effective in practice to wish now that they had acted differently then. You did it then; it did not produce the improvement or lasting happiness you hoped for or expected; you can and should feel the feeling of regret for that, but acceptance of the feeling and then allowing it to be let go has a better chance of giving you some peace and serenity than insisting on holding on to it.

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