Oliver Page

Use regret to fuel your personal growth

17 September, 2022
Photo of a man holding his head in his hands in a dark room.

‘No regrets’ is popular mantra, and it’s one I’ve come to find frustrating.

My reasoning is straightforward: when I close my heart to regret, I don’t just say no to suffering. I also put the brakes on learning and I halt my next phase of personal growth.

Much of my life is malleable at the moment. I recently got married, went travelling, and began another career pivot. To top it off, we might be relocating soon. All this movement – some joyous, some stressful – has given me cause to look back and reexamine past decisions. And by extension, my regrets.

Left unacknowledged and unprocessed, difficult emotions hide in the recesses our being. Regret is no different. I discovered that powerful regrets about my career path still live within me. For various reasons, I found myself wishing I could turn back the clock, wipe the slate clean, and give myself a fresh start.

Just typing that triggers guilt – shouldn’t I appreciate my medical training, and all the opportunity it unlocked? Am I being ungrateful to wish that out of existence? Childish even?

You’ll notice plenty of judgemental language there. Internal judgement does little to promote healing, learning, or self-awareness. Such thoughts may serve to defend me against the pain of regret, but at what cost?

To answer this question, I’d like to reflect on a more empowering philosophy of regret.

What is regret?

Before going on, let’s get on the same page. Perhaps we all experience regret differently, so all I’ll first define regret through the lens of my own experience.

I’ve found regret to be a complex, multi-layered feeling. It actually feels like an amalgamation of many other forms of suffering, such as:

  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Grief
  • Sorrow
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Longing (for things to be different)

That’s a lot to process! No wonder I’d rather not look at my regrets. I don’t want to open old wounds and feel all that pain rushing in. So instead, I’m prone to pushing regret out of my awareness. The mantra ‘no regrets’ is symptomatic of this impulse to deny.

Our culture is also wary when someone begins to make contact with their own reservoir of regret. They somehow become ‘wrong’ to feel any regret at all.

“Life’s too short”, we chide them.

“You need to move on from the past”, we advise.

But reality is reality. If a feeling exists in us, isn’t it valid ipso facto?

What’s more, sometimes looking back in anger is the exact path to healing and acceptance we must walk. Here are three suggestions to help you do just that – to help you transform your regrets into personal growth fuel.

1) Separate action from identity

The difference between how I treat others vs myself sometimes shocks me.

Last weekend, for instance, I made pizzas for the family. Not thinking it through, I placed them on tinfoil before putting them in the oven. Much to my dismay, the pizzas ended up sticking to the tinfoil, causing a hot mess.

“You should’ve known better!” I told myself.

“Why did you make such a silly decision? You’re a terrible cook.”

I was feeling the sting of regret.

Had someone else done the same, I would’ve consoled, reassured, and supported them to make the best of things. But I treated myself much more harshly.

Instead of learning from my decision, or empathising with myself, I was making the common mistake of blending action with identity.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of thinking can swallow me up, leading to deep shame. I believe many people get stuck there for decades – when we mix up our worth with how our past decisions played out, we’re in dangerous water.

Instead, I’m now making a concerted effort to just notice my tendency to self-criticise. Which thoughts bubble up during regret? Do I judge myself as bad, stupid or worthless? How do I respond to those thoughts? Do I need to respond at all?

If I can allow those knee-jerk thoughts to come and go, without shoving them back down a la ‘no regrets’, then perhaps I can learn something about myself. Perhaps I can inquire into why I acted the way I did in a calm, measured way. But first, I’ll need to navigate my feelings.

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2) Dip your toes into grief

If I can stay with the self-critical thoughts without getting roped in, the next layer down is my complex feelings.

In fact, I often use self-judgement to maintain a mind-body disconnection, shielding myself from the raw feelings in my body. It’s somehow easier to live up in my head, blaming and chastising myself. When I let go of all that rumination, the truth really hits home: what’s gone is gone. The past cannot be undone. I now enter a state of grief – the crux of almost all suffering.

We don’t need to dive headlong into our grief. Sometimes it’s better to dip our toes in and see how we feel. We can gently meditate on our regret for a few moments, only after we have arrived at a place of self-compassion. Journal about it afterwards. What did you learn? What did you notice?

The body is crucial here. Acting as a portal, it allows us to enter subtle feelings we’re often too busy to notice. Where in my body do I feel the grief of regret? It might live as a searing pain in my chest, or a wrenching ache in my gut.

When you locate this in yourself, breathe into it. Feel its contour, locate its centre, and spend some time there. Give your suffering an opportunity to be experienced, and contemplate how you can form a kinder relationship with it. Depending on the intensity of your regret, this new relationship may form in a single sitting or it may take years to develop.

3) Allow regret to teach you

Finally, allow regret to become your guide.

Now we’ve given it the space to be what it is, we can use regret to propel us forward. But in truth, our personal growth is already underway. The very fact of feeling regret – truly feeling it – probably means you wouldn’t act the same way again. So long as you’re staying open enough to be changed by the experience.

To tease out the precious learning, the key question to ask:

What did I say or do – or NOT say or do – that I now recognise as detrimental in meeting my needs, or someone else’s needs?

Often, I’ll realise I was only working with the information available to me at the time. Perhaps my actions were designed to meet certain needs (or core values) at the expense of others. Or maybe I successfully met my own needs while acting against someone else’s needs in the process. The opposite could also be true.

Revisiting the example of my career regret, I now recognise that I joined medical school as a way to meet needs like stability, competence, and contribution. On the other hand, becoming a doctor wasn’t the best strategy to meet needs like passion, creativity, fulfilment, and authenticity.

While I didn’t have access to this level of insight at a teenager, it’s the present moment that counts. In this moment, I have a new level of self-understanding, and this is to a large extent the fruit of staying in contact with my regret.