At the café table, I fiddled with my iPhone as I waited for my long-lost friend.
My thoughts travelled to the morning’s drive when I noticed how the barren gray twigs aspired to swell and brown sloshy fields appealed to green. A hard relationship anticipated similar renewal.
This overcast April day provided a sprig of hope—and a place to grow. I hoped the relationship would experience the same energizing life.
We spotted each other and instinctively embraced—not just each other, but our lost friendship, the past fourteen years, and the regrets we would later serve over lunch.
I had prepared to politely share history without resurrecting regrets, never thinking we’d be so comfortable and open. Hesitancies, hindrances, and human errors eased out on the table.
Later that evening, I reflected on my regrets: chances not taken and words not spoken, decisions not made and dreams not pursued, and the relationships not in my life.
Regret teaches us a lot, if we allow it.
- The nots of regret can tie us in knots.
At one point, I remember feeling captive in my own life because I kept looking back at my past, staring into the regrets. I couldn’t break away from regret, or see the hope in a new day.
If we let them, the knots of regret can squeeze us, restrict our freedom, and wear us down.
- We struggle because we feel the pain.
- We suffer because we hurt others.
- We wrestle because we blame ourselves.
Rather than allow our regrets to confine us, we can choose to reexamine them, find the lessons they offer and move toward the possibilities beyond them.
- Consider regret a teacher, rather than a judge.
Regret isn’t a judge slamming a gavel, or a 5-to-life prison sentence. Instead, regret can serve to teach us—and change us.
My husband, Andy, says, “I think many consider regret to be a mistake. The only true mistake is the one we don’t learn from.”
It’s human nature to want to go back and fix our mistakes, even though we know we can’t change them. We can, however, change ourselves. Viktor E. Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Through the learning is growth, and our growth emerges through our changing selves.
- Regret isn’t a hidden path we walk alone.
At times, haven’t we all tried to tuck our regrets in tiny compartments, hoping no one will see? We fear judgment, so we avoid conversations. Or we paint a polite smile on our face in an attempt to hide our mess-ups and mistakes. As I scrolled through Facebook posts, I wonder how great the disparity is between people’s social media pictures and their actual lives.
I think it’s fair to say, in one way or another, we’ve crossed that path.
- Ever fall in love with someone who was wrong for you?
- Do you wish you had handled a personal interaction differently?
- Ever make a bad financial decision?
- Have you experienced a personal or professional setback?
- Did you ever hurt someone without meaning to?
We don’t have to walk alone or feel shame over our missteps. Instead, we can reach out of the secrecy and into the encouragement of others.
- We shouldn’t hate ourselves for having regrets.
Trying to escape our regrets is almost like trying to escape ourselves, for our choices are who we are.
Journalist, author, and public speaker Kathryn Schulz addresses regret at a TED Talks conference. She says this about living with regrets:
“If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is not to hate ourselves for having them.”
Many years ago, I dated while in the middle of my 30-month divorce. For years, I hated myself over the anguish it caused my sons.
As I replayed my decision over and over in my mind, I began to identify with the regret: Feeling the pain when we hurt others demonstrates our love and empathy toward others.
Don’t we deserve the same love and empathy for ourselves?
Furthermore, if we can’t love ourselves how can we love others?
- Regret is a tool we can use to be better, more loving people.
For many years, I thought my regrets brought me down several notches, as if I fell short because of my mistakes. In reality, we all make mistakes, but what really matters is how we learn to deal with them. Kathryn tells her audience this:
“If you want to be fully functional and fully human, and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret, but with it.
We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly—it reminds us that we know could do better.”
As imperfect beings living imperfect lives, we sometimes create imperfect things.
In living with my regret, I learn a better way of living, and a better way of loving.
Regret Offers Growth
A couple of weeks have passed since lunch with my friend. The browns and grays of April still dominate the landscape.
But I witness life erupt from the hard, cold places. Green slices through the dark fertile earth. Trees blush a hint of mauve onto nature’s canvas. The days lengthen with increased warmth. Joy of a new season brings renewal.
As I examine regret, I see it offer growth.
I think back to when I was designing the direction of my blog, and I considered how life is a series of lessons. People make mistakes. Promises shatter. People disappoint one another. Regrets run through our lives. We can choose to run from them, or grow.
Instead of using regret’s restrictive associations of not, judge, hide, and hate, I adopt a new vocabulary: affirm, forgive, truth, and love.
It can heal your relationship with yourself—and others.
Yes, regret, fully accepted, allows for growth.
My regrets continue to remind me of that.
Sharon Gibbs is a writer, blogger, and oncology nurse with a passion for how our stories connect and heal us. Her agonizing divorce and estrangement from two sons led her to write about relationships, faith and life perspectives at sharonagibbs.com.
She finds joy in knowing that nothing God has done in her life is going to waste. Sharon serves her church’s ministry through being a Marriage Mentor, facilitator of Divorce Care, and Life Group leader with her husband, Andrew. She would love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or her website.