A wise woman, listening to her friend Lucy’s* tale of repeated disappointment, asked her three questions: What is it too late for? What is it too soon for? What is it the right time for?
After a great deal of thought, Lucy identified three points: it was too late to relive her tempestuous relationships, it was too soon to embark on a new one that had ominously familiar hallmarks, and it was time to acknowledge behaviour patterns that no longer served her.
Today Lucy says: ‘It’s pointless to beat myself up about the time I’ve wasted. What matters is that I’m no longer rehashing the past. I’m trying to make choices today that don’t become regrets tomorrow.’
How do you get over the hurts you inflicted, the risks you didn’t take, or those areas where you didn’t realise your potential?
Trapped in regret
‘Repeating mistakes and making bad decisions knocks confidence and self-esteem,’ says Cape Town clinical social worker Coletta Canale. ‘The way a person uses internal resources makes the difference between managing and moving through disappointment or becoming stuck in regret.’
Being stuck locks you into the role of victim. Because you did/didn’t… (fill in the blank) there is now a shadow in your life. You can inhabit this grey place indefinitely (sometimes it even becomes a comfort zone, an excuse not to face your demons) or you can decide to take the steps that will help you to move on.
Anyone who has never failed has never learned, said Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the holocaust to become a key figure in existential therapy. In other words, in the warp and weft of life’s rich tapestry, it’s not so much what happens to you that matters but how you deal with it.
Break on through
The key to letting go of regret is acceptance. If you don’t come to terms with the choices you have made, regret could poison your life. Getting stuck in a loop of destructive emotions will prevent you from being able to move on and embrace new possibilities.
‘There’s something punitive and cruel about constant regret – it’s like picking at a wound,’ says Canale. ‘When regrets take such a grip that you define yourself by them, it’s important to understand what purpose they are playing in your life.’
Forgiveness is a crucial part of the process of letting go. You may need to ask someone for forgiveness, you may need to forgive someone you are blaming and you may need to forgive yourself. Until you forgive yourself – whether it’s a single choice you regret or a lifetime of apathy or aberrance – you won’t find peace of mind.
‘You always have to see regret in the context of the individual’s life,’ says Cape Town psychologist Sue Cornfield. ‘What happened to that person? What did she do to cause it? As a therapist, I’d work towards developing compassion for the self – and forgiveness.’
The heart of the matter
If you can address the regret then do something about it today. If you can’t do anything about
it, find something that might compensate.
Stella* was devastated to learn that she could not have children, but she undertook to educate and mentor the orphaned daughters of a woman who used to work for her. Thandiwe* lost her sight but learned how to become a massage therapist. Both mourned their lost dreams but found fulfilment in other ways.
‘Helpful internal resources are to know yourself, acknowledge that everybody makes mistakes and are allowed to do so, then take steps to put right whatever you can,’ advises Canale. ‘Where self-worth is damaged or fragile, you may need professional counselling or a self-help course to help you develop your strengths.’
Relationships are central to the human experience, so it’s hardly surprising that they are so often a forum for profound regret.
Capetonian Debra Rennie was a teenage mother who was drawn into a series of painful relationships until she recognised and learned to change her behaviour patterns. Debra is now an emotional health coach, with a self-published book, The Relationship Magnet, to show for her efforts.
‘Once I had taken responsibility for the part I played, I felt powerful, because I realised I could create differently,’ says Debra. ‘Patterns tend to recur until you look for the lesson you need to learn. You have to accept your regrets, however bad, and then see what you can do about them. That acceptance of yourself allows you to make peace with the past.’
Learning to fly
There will come a time, inevitably, when you wake up one morning and ask, ‘Is this all there is to my life? Have I done everything that I planned to do?’ The answer is usually ‘no’, but instead of berating yourself, think of all that you have achieved and how your experiences have made you who you are.
Then acknowledge that you did the best you could when you were younger, with the wisdom and the materials that you had at your disposal. It’s sobering to realise that if you were given the time over you would probably make the same choices again.
A matter of choice
‘We make dozens of choices every day; many without much thought,’ says Canale.
‘With the experiences we come to regret, we may not recognise our part, or where our choices have contributed to the outcome. If we raise our awareness of what motivates, uplifts and encourages us, it becomes more difficult to choose what ultimately hurts and takes us down the path of regret. Knowing yourself, coupled with wanting to do right, leads to better choices.’
Regret belongs to the past. Learn from it and let it go.
[This is an edit of an article by Cathy Eden which originally appeared in Femina magazine, September 2007. The current edition of Femina is on sale now.]