A Fresh Perspective on Regret

As I have accumulated more and more evidence of how quickly life moves and of how short it really is, the specter of regret has loomed increasingly large in my life. The idea of looking back and wishing I had made different choices scares me. In one of the evolutions of my coaching practice, I even identified as a “No Regrets Coach.” I thought most other people must be as frightened as I was of ending up with regrets. Since that concept never gained traction, writing a blog post about regret may be risky or futile. Maybe there will be no interest.

Recently, though, I have been introduced to a fresh perspective that I find tremendously helpful. You might, too, so I decided to share my new insight.

My bike ride a couple Sundays ago started out pleasantly. I knew it was the calm before a front moved in, but I was happy to be out there enjoying my ride. I had had a rough track record of harassment by badly behaved humans and dogs (still the fault of their humans) over the previous couple weeks, but I was riding highly vetted roads on a Sunday morning, when it is generally quiet. Suddenly, just as I was really settling in to enjoy my ride, I spotted a dog ahead—large; black, with a white chest, and jumping out of his skin with excitement. He had clearly seen me before I saw him and was eagerly waiting for me to enter his chase zone.

After a really scary encounter the previous weekend with a different dog, I just couldn’t handle a confrontation. Abruptly, I made a U-turn in the middle of 247th Street. Realizing I was turning around and not wanting to lose this opportunity, the dog took off after me on a dead run. I hammered the pedals and blared my dog horn. It took two blasts, but the stronger second one stopped him in his tracks, stunned and confused, giving me the break I needed to watch him drift farther and farther back in my mirror. After that adrenaline surge, I switched directions and recalculated my route in my head.

Several miles later, “Hmm, is that a sprinkle I felt?”

A few more questionable sprinkles, and soon there was no wondering. Heavy mist settled upon me, coating my sunglasses and dripping off my helmet. On my altered route, I would make a pass by my house and resigned myself to ending my ride then, six miles short of my goal for the day, since the heavy mist was making it harder to see.

But then inspiration hit.

Not wanting to lose the moment, I rode right past my street and felt a surge of excitement as some ideas I had been pondering for a couple days really started to gel.

A few days earlier I had seen a Facebook post that Mel Robbins shared. It was a quote from Nakeia Homer:

“Forgive yourself for learning some things the hard way.”

I had no idea who Nakeia was (I have since learned.), but those words really spoke to me.

After seeing Mel Robbins’ shared post, I started tossing the concept around in my mind, but it was on my soggy, rerouted bike ride that I saw, through my mist-covered lenses, what the words really meant to me.

They offered a fresh perspective on regret.

For several years, in my quote collection, I have had Brene’ Brown’s quotes: “Regret is a fair but tough teacher.” and “’No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living with no reflection. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.”

Those words must have struck me at the time I originally read them in Rising Strong because I recorded them in my quote book, but in the years since, I have resented them and rejected them. When I have landed on them while randomly select a quote for reflection, I have brushed them off and chosen something else.

Suddenly on that bike ride, alongside Nakeia Homer’s words in my head, I saw them in a different light.

I recognized that the feeling of regret—and my fear of it—is actually learning the hard way.

This is such a helpful perspective for me. I invite you to explore it, too.

It allows me to shine a compassionate light on a personal paradox. There are certain big decisions that I made years ago that I have, at times, viewed with a twinge (or more) of regret. The paradox, though, is that while the person I am today would not make the same choice as I did back then, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today, if I had not made the choice I made back then.

On that wet bike ride, I realized that these regret-evoking decisions were opportunities to forgive myself for learning the hard way. Having made the choice I did propelled me down the road toward a greater understanding of the lesson I needed to learn.

Learning the hard way is still learning. It is valid and deserves to be recognized for the lessons and progress it brings.

What occurred to me on another bike ride last week is that learning the hard way may be incremental. That is okay, too. We make a decision, choose a direction, take an action. If the results of our movement are not what we hoped or expected, it is important to acknowledge that. With the acknowledgement that our decision or action didn’t lead to what we wanted, we can choose to forgive ourselves for learning the hard way and then make an informed decision about how to proceed. Sometimes the results of our next decision also may be disappointing. This is where the recognition that learning the hard way is sometimes incremental comes in. We move farther along our journeys with every decision, become more fully the people we are capable of becoming, and we forgive ourselves for—and release ourselves from the pain of—learning the hard way.

I have come to recognize another paradox around regret. This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but that attribution is disputed. I am not sure who actually said it first, but for a long time, I have taken it as a caution and held it to be true. Taking this fresh perspective on regret opened my mind to the paradox. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

Regardless of the original author of those words, what I realized while pedaling with a push from a strong northwest wind was that it is not that simple. Everything we don’t do—whether by conscious choice or by the default of not choosing—means that we do something else. Every time we leave one action on the table, something fills the void. We may come to regret—and learn the hard way through—whatever fills the void. It may not be clear whether it is what we didn’t do or what we did instead that led to the disappointment, regret and, as long as we recognize it, learning.

I have always found forgiveness to be difficult, whether for myself or others. I have tried to understand it and to embrace it more openly, but it has been elusive much of the time. During my yoga practice last week, it occurred to me that, not only can I acknowledge regret as learning the hard way and forgive myself, but I can also more easily find my way to forgiving others when I recognize that we all learn the hard way.

That doesn’t mean that everything is excused. Some actions are just wrong and cruel, and I can’t begin to understand what is behind them, but we are all flawed works in progress (unless we have stagnated through hopelessness, callousness or deprivation). When I can look at people who have hurt me, but who still play a role in my life, and see that they, too, sometimes learn the hard way, it can open the door for me to forgive them for being flawed and still having lessons to learn.

The essence of the JustWind mindset is that we have the freedom and power to choose our perspectives, and the ones we choose shape our lives. Viewing regret as a marker of learning the hard way and having the compassion to forgive ourselves for needing to learn that way in some (many) instances feels life changing. Instead of being stuck in a stew of regret, disappointment, shame and guilt, we can acknowledge the hard lesson for what it is, recognize that learning the hard way is still learning, compassionately forgive ourselves (or others) and choose to move forward in a way that serves us and our world more powerfully.

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