Let’s get something out of the way here – you are going to make mistakes in 2013. In fact, you are going to make BIG mistakes in 2013. How you define ‘big’ is up to you. When you do make these mistakes you likely won’t even know you’re making them. You may not find out that you’ve made them for a long,long time. But rest assured, mistakes will be made. Tears will be shed, lives will be altered, feelings will be hurt, opportunities will be missed, and damage in some way, shape or form will be done.
That said, Happy New Year!
In all seriousness, it is not my intention to sound cruel, morose or glib. Nor do I aim to burst your champagne infused bubbles of hope and change for the New Year. 2013 will be as wondrous as you intend/are planning/wish it to be. I promise.
Be that as it may, you will still encounter those godforsaken moments where time stops for eternity as your heart free-falls into uncharted and undesired territory. Where all conscious actions deteriorate into subconscious, fight or flight reactions. It’s going to hurt. Bad. Yet, it’s not necessarily the initial pain in it’s purest form that hurts the most, it is the pain mutated into ravenous forms of emotions that feed on your wounded soul, that infect your fragile mind. Fear. Guilt. Remorse.Anger. Shame. Regret.
What is one supposed to do? We are to be fearless! We are to soldier on, accept the past, turn over a new leaf, look forward, not back, because you cannot change what has been, only shape what will be and determine what is. In some way, shape or form, we are to live life free of regrets. Because that’s what strong, noble, mature human beings do!
Ok. Before assessing whether or not this is desirable, or even feasible, let’s first take a look at what regret actually is. Regret, that icky feeling that starts in the pit of your stomach and surges into your blood vessels like a tidal wave of poison, is the emotion that results from looking at your present situation and imagining that things could be better. That you could be happier. If only you’d have done something different in the past.
Regret requires agency – you made a decision, and imagination – you can picture clearly how things could have, should have been. Regret is most acute when the notion of ‘almost’ is thrown in there. When you’re running to the bus stop, only to be met with exhaust fumes mocking you as the bus drives off into the horizon. When you missed out on the winning lottery ticket by one (one!) number (which, by the way, you had initially selected but made a last minute switch). When you took your eyes off the road for a split second and rear-ended the BMW in front of you. When you met the woman of your dreams at a party, but couldn’t find the courage to ask for her number.
And so, in an attempt to rationalize, ease the pain and stop the bleeding, we deny, we alienate, we punish ourselves, we ruminate, we obsess, we drive ourselves damn right crazy and, sometimes, excruciatingly, destructively miserable. Quite simply, it sucks. Which is why we’re taught, with all good intentions, that we simply shouldn’t feel regret. But, not only is this contradictory, for most of us it is pretty much impossible.
Do you know who doesn’t feel regret? Individuals suffering from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) who, in addition, meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy (ASPD+P). What you and I often refer to as psychopaths. They, psychopaths, don’t experience the basic emotions of regret, empathy or guilt like the rest of us do. Furthermore, studies have found that psychopaths often have structural brain abnormalities in key areas of their ‘social brains’ compared to healthy individuals. Without going into all the geeky details, abnormalities have been found in the areas involved in decision making, understanding other people’s emotions, responding to fear and distress, and experiencing self-conscious emotions such as guilt or embarrassment.
So for most of us (ASPD & ASPD+P is estimated to occur in three percent of males and one percent of females) we’re going to feel regret, whether we like it or not. And we probably should be grateful that we do feel it in the first place. Yet, society, parents, teachers and leaders, teach us that regret is a bad, bad monster of a feeling that is utterly useless. But that is not true. Though the feeling of regret may suck, it’s there for a reason and it serves a very useful purpose. Firstly, you can’t avoid the feeling, unless you are unable to conjure the emotion as with psychopaths, because every decision you make means you’ve immediately forfeiting other choices and their possible outcomes. Until you, or I, or we, are able to see into the future with precision and reliability, we are, unfortunately, stuck with regret.
Secondly, and most importantly, when we feel regret, when we feel guilty and embarrassed by what we do, we are motivated to change, to undo any wrongful things we did and make better, more careful decisions in the future. That really is a beautiful thing because not only does it reinforce the existence of our moral compass, but it also motivates change, action, or at the very least the consideration of different actions.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself when ruminating over my laundry list of last year’s regrets! Let’s see…there was that date I should not have gone on (how could I have been so naïve?); those shoes I shouldn’t have bought (why did I think I needed yet another pair of heels?); that night I imbibed too much (urgh, why???); that hurtful thing I said to that person I love so much (I pray they can forgive me); that irresponsible decision that had unthinkable consequences… And those are just regrets from January 2012, let’s not even get started on the rest of the year.
Yet I’m still alive, still breathing, kicking and screaming, still ready to embark on a whole new year, and, all the more ready to conjure another gigantic list of regrets. Because I’m learning to live with regrets. I’m learning how to fear them less and that they are, in fact, not all that scary. I’m learning, slowly but surely, that the pain of the coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’ doesn’t mean that I have failed miserably (and I, most likely, haven’t).
That remorse doesn’t have to set forth the domino effect of self-sabotage and self-destruction. But that it can, when viewed in a rationale, compassionate frame of mind, signify hope for a wiser, more responsible, more thoughtful me.
Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth feeling moments of pain for? I think it is. So rather than run away from the boatload of mistakes, I’m going to lean into the possibility that they may and will happen, and when they do I’ll be all the more wiser. At the very least I’ll have some great
stories to tell you this time next year.
“If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we 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 to not hate ourselves for having them…
We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better.” Quotation from Kathryn Schulz: ‘Don’t regret regret’