Unpleasant feelings are the prods that steer us away from bad practices. Pain and regret teach us to think things through with lessons such as, “don’t back flip off the trampoline,” and “don’t get a tattoo at 18.” However, unlike physical pain, which inevitably heals, regret is harder to handle. Because, unlike pain, which is more of a nuisance, regret reminds us that we did something stupid; tells us we are stupid. It makes us feel lonely and faulty. Taking that stance is an unhealthy way to use regret. Rather than beginning that loop of, “I’m such a loser,” consider the alternative Kathryn Schultz offers, “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly; it reminds us that we know we can do better.” Take a step back from your failures to examine how you went wrong, and how you can better approach a similar situation in the future.
The gift of regret
In her lecture, Schultz also addresses the Western cultural phenomenon of rejecting regret. We’re just supposed to view every misstep as another influence that made us who we are now and never feel bad about anything. While it is true everything we experience affects our growth, allowing yourself to feel regret can be helpful. After all, it’s a natural tool that teaches you not to repeat negative behavior. If you never felt the pain of a burn, you might eventually singe off all your skin. It’s the same with regret. If you never feel bad when you see the face of a person you’ve hurt, you’ll eventually drive away everyone you care about. “If you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, I think you need to live not without regret but with it,” as Schultz said.
Letting go – Forgetting, No!
But just because you’re beginning to let in painful reminders of your flaws and vices doesn’t mean you should let regret keep you prostrate under your covers. You may not be perfect, but you know what? Neither is anyone else. Everyone has done something they wish they could change. Probably lots of things. But none of us can change that, so you might as well move on.
Balancing the pitfalls of regret
Just as you should not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the humbling effect of regret, neither should you dwell on “what could have been.” “Regret is when we think our present circumstances would be better had we done something differently in the past,” as Shultz said. This is a ridiculous notion as you have no way of knowing for sure how your past actions could have affected the trajectory of your life now. You can only guess. And to “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” all day long is to assume you know better than God what your life should be like. As we read in Jer. 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Reach out for help
Regret can be difficult to handle, particularly if you had made some major missteps or are susceptible to self-destructive behavior. If you find yourself having trouble dealing with regret, consider seeking a Christian counselor. They’ll be able to help you better understand why you feel so overwhelmed by regret and assist you with moving past it.
“I had drunk our great cultural Kool-aid about regret. Which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time; that we should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.”
*adapted from a TED Talks lecture by Kathryn Schulz
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