Are You Burdened by Regrets?

How to move forward when you've hurt someone.

Posted Apr 21, 2019

Pixabay image by Geralt
Source: Pixabay image by Geralt

Everyone has them, but few of us talk about them. If we have lived fully, we're bound to have regrets. You may have heard people proudly declare, "I have no regrets." But such a declaration doesn't pass the sniff test. Having regrets is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Believing that we're beyond regrets or shouldn't have them places us in double jeopardy: We experience them and then add the additional insult of judging ourselves ("What’s wrong with me for having them?"). The sobering truth is that we all screw up sometimes. If we claim to be regret-free, then we haven’t been paying attention or are living in denial.

Regrets might be defined as carrying sorrow or shame regarding past actions or decisions. Perhaps we regret our choice of partners or decisions around our relationship choices, health, or career. Toward the end of our life, we may regret not having spent enough time with loved ones. Maybe we didn’t appreciate the good things we've had, or relish the gift or being alive, or take more risks to love and grow. Perhaps we're too riddled by shame and guilt to recognize the harm we’ve caused others by our insensitivity or narcissism.

Our challenge is to find a way to acknowledge regrets without being debilitated by them. Obsessing over unwise past actions that keep grabbing our attention can lead to depression and rob us of the joy of living. That doesn't serve anyone. Replaying scenes in our mind and wishing we'd acted differently keeps us spinning our wheels, perpetuating our misery and keeping us isolated. Caught in the grip of how things could have been different, we’re hijacked from the present moment as we slap ourselves with the cold hand of self-incriminations.

Working With Regrets

Wisdom and compassion dawn as we begin to realize how unwise and self-absorbed we’ve been. Like a lotus blossoming in a dirty pond, good decisions grow out of the muddy waters of our bad decisions. Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to look back and wish we’d made different choices. It is the height of unfairness to judge the decisions we made then, based upon what we know now. Such knowledge is only gained through trial and error.

Making a friendly space for regrets begins to soften their grip. Affirming that it’s natural to have regrets may relieve some of the self-punishing shame that keeps us frozen.

Cultivating a climate of gentle self-acceptance, we can turn our attention toward what we can learn from our miscues. Redemption lies not in banishing regrets but using them as a portal to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and life itself. We can use our regrets as an impetus to find healthier ways to affirm ourselves, communicate our needs, and set boundaries in our lives.

If we made poor relationship choices, we can make wiser ones going forward. If we hurt someone through disrespectful actions or self-destructive habits, such as excessive drinking, we can commit ourselves to a path of personal growth and mindfulness that increases respect and sensitivity toward ourselves and others. We can consider making amends if doing so would not be an unwelcome intrusion. We can commit ourselves to a course of psychotherapy or join a 12-step program to help us move forward. Making wiser choices leads to fewer regrets and enables a growing self-forgiveness.

Embracing Remorse

One category of regrets that can be especially troubling is when we’ve hurt others, especially when done intentionally. In most instances, we were acting from an ignorant or unconscious place. Hurting inside, we may have blindly lashed out. We wanted them to feel the pain we’re in. As the saying goes, "Hurt people hurt people." Or we are misguidedly tried to muster some sense of power or justice.  

Recognizing that we did our best with our limited self-awareness at the time might relieve some of the burdens we carry. At the same time, it may help with our emotional healing to embrace remorse for our actions.

Remorse refers to a deep moral or emotional anguish for something we’ve done that violates our moral standards and values. It is comparable to healthy shame (as opposed to toxic shame), which gets our attention and orients toward life in a more attuned, positive way.

Remorse implies a deep, soulful sorrow. This is different than attacking ourselves or clinging to a core, shame-based belief that we’re bad and don’t deserve love. Such toxic shame may block us from allowing ourselves to feel remorse and sorrow. If we equate the sorrow of hurting someone with the conviction that we’re a terrible person, we’re unlikely to open to our sadness. If we recognize that being human means that we sometimes hurt each other, mostly without intending to, then we’re more likely to welcome the unavoidable sorrows that are part of life.

If we can find the courage and wisdom to feel the natural sadness of having hurt someone, then we may find a healing pathway. If our partner can let in how badly we feel about a hurtful behavior or betrayal, then they’re more inclined to trust that we really “get” it and are less likely to repeat it. Our apologies, when accompanied by sincere remorse, are infinitely more powerful than the mere words, “I’m sorry.”

Resting in the cauldron of our sorrow without self-denigration, we become a deeper person. We develop a more soulful empathy toward others. The redemption of self-forgiveness dawns as we bring gentleness to our sorrow, learn lessons not just in our head but in our bones and dedicate our lives to living with integrity, honesty, and mindfulness. We can then make space for our regrets without being their prisoner. Making wiser choices, we're likely to have fewer regrets going forward.

© John Amodeo