Love Your Regret

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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Please don't tell me you don't have any regrets...please...I beg of you.  Normal people have regrets; it doesn't make you pathological, it makes you human.

I know what you're thinking, but all the photos on Facebook with inspirational quotes superimposed on them tell me that having regrets is negative and cynical.  You weren't thinking that?  Oh, I thought you were.

 "Appreciate everything, regret nothing"

 "Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted." 

Seriously?  Just stop it.

In a reality not filled with dramatic sunsets and quick self-help quips most people have at least a few compunctions, and oftentimes they’re not the result of something that was "exactly what [they] wanted."

I'm bothered by advice like this not because it’s ridiculous and impractical (it is), but because it minimizes our need to process and do penance for the actions we see worthy of regret. Really getting down and dirty with our regret is valuable; it allows us the opportunity to understand it, learn from it, and forgive ourselves.

Honestly, what kind of people would we be if every time we made a mistake we shrugged our shoulders and forgot about it?  Survey says...crappy people.

I understand the temptation to say you have no regrets; when you acknowledge you wish you hadn’t made certain choices, you sometimes feel like you're taking away from what you have now. But you don’t have to love every leg of the trip to appreciate your final destination.

I regret being such a horrible person from age 14-17.  I was a total brat. I was a teenager so it’s forgivable, but the shame I feel about some of the things I did during those years will always bring a tinge of pain.  True, I love my life, and had I been compliant and studious I would probably be in a different place now, but I can be satisfied with my current circumstances and still wish I’d never made my mother cry.

Unfortunately, those of us who regret something we did (or didn’t do) to someone who has died are at a disadvantage because we can’t ask for forgiveness.  Therefore, we are at greater risk of letting unresolved regrets have a negative impact on our lives. But the solution is not to close our eyes tightly and wish them away, rather it's to accept they exist and work towards forgiving ourselves and growing from our mistakes.

Here's a simple journaling exercise for anyone who struggles with regrets, especially those who are coping with grief and loss.

1.  Take two sheets of paper

2.  Spend at least 10 minutes writing about your regrets on the first sheet of paper.  Write about everything you wish you could have done differently and everything you wish you could change.

3.  Keeping the first sheet of paper close at hand, take the second sheet of paper, and spend at least 10 minutes writing down all the ways you have grown from your regrets and all the lessons you've learned.

4.  You can do what you want with the sheet of paper you wrote your regrets on, keep it in your journal, or throw it away.  I want you to hold on to the second sheet though, the one with your lessons learned.  Leave it with your journal or fold it up and put it away somewhere private, but don't throw it away just yet.  Next time you feel yourself getting caught up in the 'if only's' take this piece of paper out and remind yourself how far you've come.

Seeing as we’ve been talking about quotes, I've created these two journaling pages using a quote from Henry David Thoreau.

"Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest.  To regret deeply is to live afresh."

Below are links to the journaling pages as downloadable PDF's.  You are welcome to print them and use them to complete the journaling exercise.

Regret Journaling Page

Growth Journaling Page

Want more grief journaling? Check out our 30-day Self-Guided Grief Journaling Intensive, or the following articles:

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9 Comments on "Love Your Regret"

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  1. Nils  March 28, 2022 at 9:44 pm Reply

    Useless. “At least now I might remember not to be such a selfish person who takes loved ones for granted in the future” doesn’t make me feel any better. This is still torture. (Not that I deserve to feel better at all).

    • Litsa  June 5, 2022 at 8:55 am Reply

      This isn’t intended to make you feel better. It is intended to help you begin to reflect on what action you are taking with your regret should you choose to do that. If you’re sitting with guilt and feeling you don’t deserve to feel better, often that means that harm that was already caused is now simply being extended to even more harm to yourself. Shifting from thinking about self-punishment to thinking about making a living amends can be helpful. You can read more about that here in this article about making a living amends.

  2. Cheri Langston  February 24, 2016 at 11:56 am Reply

    Thanks for the article. Thanks for all your efforts.

    I think for me the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the world regret, is to remember not to confuse regret with guilt. Guilt is like being stuck in a very painful, useless kind of self torture.You get nowhere fast and it is a total waste of time. That is perhaps the reason behind the flowery inspirational quotes. No one actually enjoys feelings of guilt.

    Regret on the other hand is more like a feeling of relief, relief that you finally see, that you are no longer caught in a blind, habitual way of thinking that clearly does not lead to happiness. It is more of a “phew’! It’s like the relief experienced should you find out you were just about to sip poison, and stopped! You wouldn’t beat yourself up. Guilt would. Guilt would tell you you are in some way a fool, fundamentally flawed, bad.

    Looking back over my life I see things I regret doing, I also at the same time see that I never once woke up thinking – “okay, who can I hurt today? How can I ruin this day for myself and others?” So with healthy regret there is so much kindness and understanding for that silly self absorbed young girl of 16, there is understanding for that overprotective mom of 30. There is understanding for the mom who flipped her lid trying to protect her kids, there is understanding for this grieving mom today, who so wishes she had been able to extend her son’s life, somehow, somehow.

    I think in the end the difference between guilt and regret is kindness.

    When we begin to see regret as something that is not hurtful, that is so not guilt, we will perhaps open up a little more to our imperfect selves.

  3. Helen Zz  June 6, 2015 at 7:28 pm Reply

    And if you don’t see any lessons from your regret?

    • Eleanor  June 14, 2015 at 12:25 pm Reply

      Hmmmm…nothing? No growth or lessons at all? Then I would just say to journal about the regret. Perhaps on the opposite page your could brainstorm ways to make peace, forgive yourself, or at least live with your regret. Even if they are outlandish or ridiculous…come up with options. At the end of the day the unfortunate thing about regret is that you can’t go back and change what’s happened. Finding acceptance is the only way to keep regrets from wrecking you.

  4. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)  April 3, 2013 at 10:09 am Reply

    Outstanding, Eleanor! I’ve added a link to your post at the base of my own article on this topic, here: “Guilt and Regret in Grief,”

    • Eleanor  April 4, 2013 at 10:43 am Reply

      Thanks so much Marty!

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