It's Not What You Regret, It's How You Regret It

All of us have regrets: A poor decision. A selfish action. An angry outburst. It may be something that only impacts you--or it may have far-reaching consequences for friends, family, even the world at large. Guess what? It doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter whether what happened was large or small or who it impacted. It has passed. What matters is how you process your regret, because that can make a profound difference in your life, both immediately and in the future.

I call these bad regrets versus good regrets.

In some cultures, people learn to internalize regret. They conflate their actions with their own essence, believing that their wrongdoing proves that they are inherently bad. From there it is a downward spiral of low self-esteem leading to more wrong-doing leading to more regret and self-flagellation. Eventually, some people--from grumpy old men to demanding bosses to tough street kids--even take pride in being "bad," expending a lot of energy consciously reinforcing a negative image.

Interestingly, sometimes feeling inherently bad doesn't even require actual wrong-doing. The lens of seeing yourself as wrong can be enough.

For example, the brother of one of my students made some poor business decisions, resulting in financial troubles. His wife pressured him to make more money, wanting to send their children to an expensive school, so that the children might have a better future. Unable to solve their financial woes, the tension between them grew.

With those growing problems came increasing regret and self-blame. His mantra became, "I am the problem. I am the problem. I am the problem."

I tried to counsel him. I told him that nothing in life--including his present suffering--is permanent. I told him that eventually he would be able to see his regret through a different lens. But he couldn't hear me; he was thoroughly convinced that he and his family's problems were one and the same.

One day he killed himself.

That is an extreme outcome of bad regret. Yet in many ways bad regret is itself a form of suicide. It makes you weaker. You become discouraged. You become anchored in the past--a past which you cannot change. In the process, you cut yourself off from the potential goodness that the present holds.

This is not to say, "Have a free pass, shift the blame to someone else and keep doing bad things." Regret is important. You are not a victim; you have choices; you chose poorly.

Now choose well: Choose good regret.

Good regret recognizes that good people can do bad things, and that those actions do not define the whole person. Any action is the result of many factors: emotions and thoughts, circumstances and resources. A bad action may be the product of a momentary inability to differentiate between right and wrong, of being engulfed in a circumstantial fog--but as that internal fog lifts and you recognize that what you have done is wrong, you can embrace good regret. Good regret prevents you from making the same mistake again. It prevents you from continuing to harm yourself and others. It even helps you to be mindful in daily life.

Indeed, good regret is a form of wisdom. Every successful life has a turning point; often it is related to a difficult experience where good regret is put to use.

Another student of mine had a bad drug problem. His family had begged him to stop taking drugs; he refused. But then one day he saw the harm he was causing, not only to himself, but to his family. Health problems, financial difficulties, social humiliation were all a direct result of his actions. He was deeply ashamed. He regretted all the pain he had caused--and he used that regret to make a change. He asked for help. He entered rehab. And even though the cure rate is only 50%, he came out with a strong commitment to avoid slipping back into drug use. He has succeeded.

His good regret fueled a desire to change. It inspired a dedication to live mindfully, day by day, which is the only way he could be sure to stay off drugs.

Follow this example. Take a regretful experience as a wake up call. Understand it. Learn from it. Change. And grow stronger.