❝Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.❞ -Haruki Murakami
Looking back on my life I start to wonder where I would be if I took a more traditional path through life. The path you're supposed to take is to get good grades in high school, get into a good college, graduate with honors, get a good job, and move up the ladder. I didn't do that. The story I tell myself is that it wasn't available to me. It was. It just would have been more challenging for me.
As I'm looking back I start to feel a lot of regret. How could I be so dumb? Why couldn't I have gone to class in high school more? Why did I have to skip college for a few years? Why did I go to technical school before transferring to the university? By the time I got my first professional job at nearly 26 years old, those who followed the more traditional path were already on their second or third promotion. Because of my poor choices, I'm so far behind. I think about how much longer I'm going to have to work. I get embarrassed about being in my late twenties and still working an entry-level job. I'm in a dark place.
Then I realize that all of my negative emotion is driven by hindsight. Of course I would have made different choices if I had known the future. I'm not entirely sure I would have made the "right" choices if I rewound the universe and started it over again. I think about what would have happened if I followed the "right" course of action. I'm not good at figuring out where I would be if I made different choices - I only know that it would be different from how it is now. It's quite possible I could have a boring life. The truth is, I have no idea how my life would have turned out if I made one different choice, not to mention making a dozen different choices.
I realize I can be grateful for the life that I have. I can be grateful for the lessons I've learned. I can be grateful for the resiliency I've built.
I can't change the past. Feeling sorry for myself can be helpful if it's part of the grieving process, but there comes a point when it's up to me to determine how long I want to keep feeling bad. I'm thankful for what I have, for what I've learned, and for all the new tools I get to use as I go forward with my life.
Dwelling on the past doesn't help me in the future unless I learned the lessons that were available to me.
The same is true for you.
WHAT IS REGRET?
Regret is in many ways a unique emotion because it doesn't so much relate to something that happened to us, but rather something that didn't happen. With regret, we compare the current state of our lives with what we think might or might not have happened if we made a different choice in our past.
Our minds are very quick at creating these scenarios but because it's speedy we lose accuracy. We ignore the details. We have no idea how that other life would have turned out with a different choice.
Let's not forget that, although we can make bad choices, we often make good choices that didn't turn out the way we hoped. It's only with hindsight that we know (or think) we should have made a different choice.
Just so it's clear, making a choice that is suboptimal isn't regret. Regret is the negative feeling we get when we believe we could have made a better choice and didn't. It gives us a sense of self-doubt, because we don't usually identify as someone who makes bad choices, but we have to live with what we consider a bad choice.
REGRET IS IN THE PAST
I'll state the obvious, it's important to understand that previous choices are in the past, and the past can't be changed. When we read that it seems obvious, but if you've ever truly regretted something, it doesn't seem that obvious to you. We can turn to dark places pretty quickly.
Awareness is the key here. When we're not in it it's obvious that we can't do anything to change the past. When it's someone we know, it's easy to tell that other person we can't change the past. When it's us and we deeply regret something, we are right in front of a tree with no ability to see the forest. Being able to sense our feelings of regret can be a good reminder to adopt a bigger picture perspective.
The past only exists in our minds as memories. These memories and previous actions may have been the cause of something that didn't go well, but it's still just a memory.
Similarly, the future only exists in our minds. The difference between the two is that we have some control over the future. The best we can do with the past is to learn from it and apply it to the present and the future.
WHAT IS GRATITUDE?
Gratitude is the mindset of feeling grateful for the things you have in your life. It's a powerful tool because our minds tend to have a negative filter on them. It makes sense, because seeing and avoiding threats was more important to our ancestors than seeing and achieving opportunities. Thanks to our programming, though, we are hardwired to dwell on the bad stuff. Gratitude is simply flipping that around and paying more attention to all the good stuff that we experience. This can be as detailed or as existential as we want. For example, a detailed gratitude practice is to feel grateful for having a warm bed to sleep in. A more existential practice is to feel grateful that no matter what's happening to you, it's not as bad as you think; at least a billion people in the world would consider their prayers answered if they could change places with you.
You've heard of this before. In the United States on Thanksgiving, people give thanks for what they have. That's gratitude. Some people are told to "count your blessings." That's gratitude.
Instead of looking up the mountain and feeling stress because you've got a long way to go, look behind you and feel good about how far you've come.
REGRET AND GRATITUDE
Because gratitude is focused on what we have instead of the mistakes we've made, many people believe gratitude is the opposite of regret. Meaning, you can feel regret or you can feel gratitude.
I don't believe they are opposites. Regret, as with all of our feelings and emotions, offer us information. The problem isn't feeling the feelings, it's dwelling on it and feeling bad for ourselves. Regret provides us with lessons. These lessons can be used to make our futures better. Therefore we can be grateful for our regret. We can use regret as a prompt to tell us that there is a lesson we should learn. We can feel grateful for being able to see our error and be able to make better choices in the future. Author and meditation expert Sam Harris says we can use regret as a springboard into gratitude.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Increasing our awareness of what's going on inside of us is important. Even more important, though, is to do so in a way where we don't judge ourselves. Negative self-talk isn't helpful. So recognize when you feel regret.
Zen Habits founder Leo Babauta suggests understanding what story you're telling yourself. This story could be the truth of what happened. It could also be a fear-based worst-case scenario story. It doesn't matter. Recognize what story you're telling yourself. Once you know your story, stay with that feeling. Don't push it away because you think it's uncomfortable. By feeling your emotions and your feelings you are allowing yourself to learn that your body is telling you something.
When we are stressed out we have a tendency to breathe shallowly. This is a stress response. Shallow breathing happens when we breathe with our chest. We can break this stress breathing by belly breathing. Breathe through your belly. Count your breaths. This will help calm you down and let your rational brain come back online.
You can take this a step further and meditate. Mindfulness meditation is a way to focus on your body without judgment. It's about becoming free from distraction - distraction from the constant chatter in our minds. We are constantly lost in thought without really being aware that we are lost in thought.
Slowing down and calming your mind will help you view your regret in a more helpful way.
Regret is normal. There is information in regret for us. We choose how long we want to suffer from negative feelings of regret. We can't change the past, but we can take steps to make it less likely that something similar will happen in the future. With practice, we can learn to see regret as an opportunity to learn and grow.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Scott Adams: How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big
The Happiness Lab: Beat Your Isolation Loneliness
The Happiness Lab: Rising to a Challenge
Sam Harris: How to Meditate
Sam Harris YouTube Channel: AMA #16 - How do you think about regret?
Sam Harris YouTube Channel: The Power of Regret
Sam Harris YouTube Channel: The Waking Up Course - A Lesson on Gratitude
Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication
The Waking Up Course: Introductory Course (subscription required)
The Waking Up Course: The Power of Regret (subscription required)
The way of Chi YouTube Channel: Buddhist Monk shares his Secrets of Meditation
Zen Habits: 4 Steps to Letting Go of the Past
Zen Habits: Why We Have Regret
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.