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Regret as a Path to Resilience

We all have regrets. How can we engage with them in a life-enhancing way?

We all have regrets. Regrets are part of the human experience. No one’s life goes exactly as planned. Regrets are inevitable.

Clients often come to see me about what they regret in their life. They are focused on the event which triggered the regret — a love relationship that ended, a job interview that bombed, or a friendship that changed over an argument.

They question what they could have done differently. Could they have been more sensitive to their partner? Did they present themselves assertively enough in the job interview? Could they have been more open to their friend’s opposing views?

There are several ways to respond to our regrets.

We can respond by being angry at ourselves for not taking the "right" action in the situation, and then never letting our anger go. By doing that, we are taking on an unrealistic level of responsibility for the outcome of a situation. We are forgetting that there are other, autonomous people involved in what happened. We blame ourselves for the outcome. We get caught in the "if-only" anger loop.

If only I hadn’t been selfish, my partner and I would still be together.

If only I had been more forthcoming about my skills and abilities, I would have been hired.

If only I had been less stubborn, my friend and I wouldn’t have fought.

Being angry at ourselves leads not to resilience but to a life of quiet desperation and a life of unrelenting self-criticism. We failed at meeting our expectations and hopes. We believe we will never change. It is just who we are, so why should we bother? We will just go through the motions of life until we die. We are stuck in obsessing over what could have been, should have been, but will never be.

Another variation on the "if-only" anger loop is to turn the anger towards the other person and not take responsibility for our part in the event.

If only my partner had been more giving.

If only the employer had recognized what an asset I would be to the company.

If only my friend had cared enough to listen to me.

Being angry at the other person doesn’t lead to resilience. It leads to bitterness. It leads to being a victim. Life didn’t meet our expectations and hopes, and we believe that will never change. Why should we bother to try to get what we want when other people will block us? That is just the way life is. We will just be angry and bitter towards life until we die. We are stuck in obsessing over what could have been, should have been, but will never be.

But what if we use our regrets to build a path towards resilience?

We grieve what could have been but will never be. Through this grieving process, we learn to re-interpret what cannot be denied (George Kelly, Ph.D.). Reinterpreting the event doesn’t mean putting a band-aid on our pain. The pain has to be faced and worked through, in order for the re-interpretation to happen. We must engage with it, so we can make sense out of the regret in ways that will be helpful and growth producing. The grief process will allow us to accept what actually happened and will empower us to discover a path forward. This leads to resilience.

We forgive ourselves for actions we could have taken but didn’t. We forgive ourselves for actions we did take that didn’t go well. We forgive others who hurt us. We become clearer about who we are and how we want to be.

Gradually, we can appreciate the possibility that our life can be better in the new trajectory it is taking. We have learned that our sensitivity is vital for a rich, intimate relationship. We are optimistic that we are developing a new way of being partnered. In our next job interview, we won’t be afraid to express our skills and abilities. We won’t be afraid to express how we are an asset to the company and thus our new employer will be excited to bring us on board. We realize that our refusal to listen to our friend’s viewpoint, we hurt the intimacy of our friendship. We realize the value of the friendship far outweighs our need to prove ourselves "right."

We acknowledge that regret is part of life for all of us. We are not alone in this. We can find comfort in that. The difference is the choice we make in how we handle it. We can stay stuck in regret and let the years pass. Rather than reliving the past, we can choose to be resilient by grieving the event and opening ourselves up to the future. Our regret is then transformed into a path of resilience.

As a personal exercise, I would suggest journaling about a regret you have, whether it is recent or in the past. As you write, allow yourself to go inward and be aware of your present thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Can you imagine grieving the regret? Can you forgive yourself? Can you forgive others? Can you reinterpret your regret as a way to be open to future positive possibilities?

We experience regret, and we still feel worthy and hopeful for the future. That is the meaning of regret leading to resilience.