Most of us regret that we have regrets. We know they make us our own worst enemies. We obsess about past events in our lives and wonder whether or not we made the right decisions or acted in the best ways. We blame ourselves for mucking things up and not listening to our better self, intuition, or conscience. In hard times, when things aren't going well, it's very tempting to try to figure out what we might have done differently.
Regret is ready, willing, and able to have us second-guess our choices. Listen to the resulting self-talk: "Why didn't I consult someone and get their counsel before I made that decision?" "Why didn't I look at the big picture before turning down that trip?" "Why did I rush into that commitment before the relationship had gelled?" "If only . . ." "What if . . ."
Often the result of this mastication of the past is a drain of energy and a waste of time. Most spiritual teachers would admonish us to stay in the moment and realize there's no way to re-make the past. What's gone is gone. Let it be, and let it go.
But recently we were gratified to learn another perspective where regret no longer has a bad reputation. In a scientific study, men and women voted this emotion as the most beneficial of 12 negative emotions since it fostered self-inspection and personal growth. Here are a few tips on how to proceed with regret reframed as a positive tool.
1. Most spiritual teachers advise us not to get stuck in the past by focusing on our bad decisions. Instead follow the Tibetan Buddhist way of turning things around. Here the key is looking for what you can learn from a past pain or setback in your life. You can then turn your regrets into catalysts for change.
2. If we are consumed by regrets, we overlook all the good that has come from our decisions and actions. So when you find yourself having regrets, bring to mind times when you did the right thing and came out happy and fulfilled. Investigate how these positive memories are different from the memories that are filled with regret. Adjust your attitudes so that you are acting in ways consistent with your positive memories.
3. In Judaism, there is a rich and deep tradition of blessing all things. You might take this practice to heart and give thanks for all the choices and decisions you have made. By doing so, you can move beyond the self-blame and depression that comes from being stuck in regrets.
4. An attitude of gratitude is always helpful and salutary when dealing with emotions like regret. Regret helps us clarify what is and is not important to us. Be thankful for the spiritual direction this emotion provides. Being thankful for all of the things that have happened to us is the spiritual path in many religions. Don't exclude anything!
5. Follow this advice from Henry David 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 is to live afresh." Move forward in the grand adventure of life and don't be afraid of taking risks. Take as your mantra for the week: "To regret is to live afresh."