Written by Karen Meeker
Every human being experiences regret at times. The challenge is what to do about it! Here are ways to understand regret and some helpful strategies to manage it.
Setting the scene
I know exactly what will happen next. I’ve experienced it before.
It starts like this. I go to bed at my usual time, around 9 p.m. I relax, close my eyes, breathe deeply, and—nothing happens. I change positions, adjust the covers and try again. I’m still wide awake.
So, if sleeping is not a choice, the next best thing is . . . thinking. It’s dark. It’s quiet. A perfect time for meditation—right? A time to ponder the happenings of the day, the beautiful sunrise, fascinating Bible passages I read that morning, to-do lists, conversations with family, e-mails from friends . . . but no.
It starts with remembering conversations or encounters, sometimes from decades ago. Memories tinged with a familiar nemesis: regret.
Then it progresses to rueful thoughts: I wish I hadn’t said that. And how could I have said that?! I didn’t mean it that way. Why did I do that?!
Before long, I’m in full-fledged regret mode, and sleep is just a fantasy.
Recently, I learned that the emotion of regret has been a subject of interest for many social scientists over the past several decades.
At least one website encourages people to share their regrets anonymously. It has garnered thousands of responses from around the globe (worldregretsurvey.com). It is the brainchild of Daniel Pink, best-selling author and lecturer. He wrote his recent book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, based on scores of independent studies and responses from his survey.
I found this book engaging, enlightening and well-documented.
Just what is regret?
First off, Pink establishes that regret is common to everyone except for the very young (he says that the emotion kicks in at about age 7), those with brain damage and sociopaths. Feeling regret, in essence, is part of being human.
He then carefully explores what he sees as four basic types of regret:
- Foundation (regretting the failure to be responsible, conscientious or prudent).
- Boldness (regretting the chances not taken or missed opportunities).
- Moral (regretting poor behavior or compromise of beliefs).
- Connection (regretting the neglect of people and relationships).
Regret is often accompanied by a rueful “if only.” If only I had not done this or said that, or had tried harder, planned ahead, etc.
The author uses the familiar fable of the carefree grasshopper and the resourceful ant to illustrate two perspectives: overvaluing the now (living for the moment) and undervaluing the later (preparing for the future).
To understand “if only,” Bible students need only remember the parable of the 10 virgins and the distress the foolish five experienced (Matthew 25:1-13). “If only” they had prepared, they would have had enough oil to last until the bridegroom arrived.
Strategy #1: Think ahead; do the work; start now to build a stable platform for life. Be the ant and avoid regret.
Going boldly . . . or not
Boldness, by definition, describes a willingness to take a risk or to act innovatively.
The boldness of regret kicks in when we realize that we can’t regain a missed opportunity. Often, the slang words coulda and shoulda, along with “what ifs,” impede the possibility of growth.
Jesus used the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-29 to encourage His followers to capitalize on the talents they’ve been given, with an eye to growth. The unprofitable servant who refused to do so found himself chastened, reduced to nothing, and devoid of further opportunity—a certain recipe for regret!
(For further insights, read “The Spiritual Tool of Self-Management.”)
Strategy #2: Don’t let “what ifs” keep you from “at least I tried.”
Missing the mark
Moral regret is likely the response most familiar to us as Church members because it often involves violations of fairness, kindness, loyalty, authority and purity. It is said to be the most individually painful.
The apostle Paul expressed it this way: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). He later said, “Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (verse 20).
Pink says this regret is often liberally peppered with “if only I had done the right thing.” On a secular level, such regrets can center around things like not having or finishing a college degree or not taking better care of oneself physically when confronting health issues. For the Christian, however, it is often about missing the mark—sinning—and the need for repentance and change.
(Note: Regret is not the same as repentance, but can lead to repentance. For more information concerning regret and repentance, see “No Regrets?”)
Strategy #3: When in doubt, do the right thing.
Correcting the drift
Years ago, my husband and I had some good friends in the area where we then lived. We shared many enjoyable activities with Clint and Meg (names changed). When we moved several states away, we occasionally exchanged visits. However, with the passage of time and the aging process, our connection was reduced to sporadic phone calls.
One day, that all changed. Clint was diagnosed with an incurable disease that would soon take his life. Our communications took on a somber tone, and too soon, the dreaded call came—Clint was gone.
Because of distance and timing, we couldn’t travel to the funeral, and during the following years, we lost contact with Meg altogether. Attempts to locate her have been futile. No one knows anything about her, where she is, or if she is doing well.
That friendship added significance and satisfaction to our lives, but we let it drift away.
Strategy #4: Do better next time. Do something now.
The author suggests that a starting point for transforming regret into a positive is to revisit a specific episode. Then take the following steps:
- Undo or amend an offense by acknowledging blameworthiness and regret, followed by an apology. (In Matthew 18, Jesus explores offenses from the viewpoint of the offender and the offended, with the ultimate objective being forgiveness and reconciliation.)
- If an apology will not suffice, the author advises shifting to the mindset of “at least”—finding a future-facing lesson from an occasion for regret. Think about how it could have turned out worse. Learn from it. Then, move forward.
The apostle Paul worked to transform the negative pull of regret into a positive push for change. In Philippians 3:13-14, he wrote: “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Strategy #5: Change what you can. Learn from what you can’t.
Summing it up
There is so much more to learn, but here are some takeaways I’m thankful for learning through this study:
- It helped me identify in clear terms the types and origins of regret.
- It offered suggestions for keeping my nighttime nemesis at bay with hopeful “at leasts” instead of self-condemning “shouldas.”
- It encouraged me to own my offenses and remedy them when possible.