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Life’s Biggest Regrets: Why We Need Them

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What is Regret?

The Oxford Dictionary defines “regret” as “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.” All of us have experienced these feelings at one time or another, but the phrase “no regrets,” seems to permeate the collective conversation.

Denying Our Biggest Regrets

The search term “no regrets” brings up songs, albums, books, magazine articles that urge us to deny our biggest regrets. But in the context of our relationships, is it truly healthy to avoid facing our biggest regrets? Can anyone honestly say they have none?

As someone who has been a selfish and insensitive daughter, married three times and divorced twice, I cannot look in the mirror and say I have no regrets. And that’s a good thing because regrets cause us to do things differently.

Our Biggest Regrets Motivate Us to Do Better

Regrets are the feelings that accompany all the bad things we wish we had or hadn’t done. Without those feelings hitting us over the head to be better people, we wouldn’t be motivated to change for the better. So, if someone says they have no regrets in their relationships, I’d seriously question why. Are they not willing to explore the impact of their mistakes on others? Are they not being honest with themselves or with you?

Our Biggest Regrets Are Painful

Feeling regret is often painful, and many times we can’t feel it until years later with the benefit of hindsight. When I was in my twenties, I saw a therapist who helped me understand that my anxiety and insecurity stemmed entirely from how my parents raised me. Not! Well at least that’s how I interpreted the information I received in those sessions. 

We Hurt Our Parents

Without a thought to how my parents might feel, I tried to distance myself from them – especially my mom who was babysitting my son at the time and ignoring how much more I knew about modern parenting than she did. Let’s just say that, while she bore some of the blame, I forgot everything she had ever done for me in my life and was completely insensitive to her vulnerable emotional state. 

Did I need to create that distance? Absolutely, and I’m glad that today our relationship is much healthier. But I regret my insensitivity and how that made her feel, something I was not able to grasp until I became a mother of an adult child myself.

We Hurt Our Children

I have even more regrets about my divorces. I left my first husband after 10 years. There is no doubt in my mind that being divorced was the right thing for me. But the hurt that I brought to my first husband and my children, who were only 4 and 7 at the time, left a lasting impact on all of us, which saddens me greatly. If given the chance today to reverse my decision, I would still leave the marriage. But I live every day with the knowledge and disappointment that I hurt my family. 

I also regret that in trying to make my second marriage work, I let my spouse get in the way of my relationship with my kids. As with my mom’s and my relationship, I was unable to admit it or understand it until much later when my son not so gently shared his feelings with me. Yet while I regret marrying my second spouse, I also feel terrible about leaving him. I am much happier now that we’re divorced, but I hurt him deeply when I left him. For that, I’m sorry, even though I regret staying so long in the marriage.

Acknowledging Our Biggest Regrets Leads to Healing

So how does all this regret help us? Regret is distinguishable from guilt and shame. Regret is an opportunity for reflection. It’s a manifestation of pain that is both uncomfortable and necessary in the path toward self-forgiveness. Regret is an acknowledgment that we hurt ourselves and others with the decisions we’ve made. 

Once we acknowledge the pain we’ve caused, we can evaluate how we got there and what we would do differently. We can ask forgiveness from the people we’ve hurt and repair relationships where possible. Coming face-to-face with regret is freedom of sorts — freedom to feel and freedom to go about the work of forgiving ourselves. Without regrets, we can’t grow.  We’re stuck burying our heads in the sand about where we’ve fallen down, which keeps us from ever getting up and coping with the pain of our actions.

How do you cope with the pain? Therapy is a good start. It gives you the ability to look through dispassionate eyes at the circumstances that brought you there. In my case, I learned to accept that my mistakes did not define me, which was essential to healing. This healing is pain management of sorts, and it allows you to more deeply explore how you and others experienced your actions. That exploration is a direct line to forgiveness and ultimately peace. But without regrets, you can never get there.

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