Reframing Regret

Article by Steve Harvey, Associate Impromptu

Until recently I couldn’t really countenance the idea of regret. Regret is something I associated with living in the past, with unhealthy dwelling. It felt like regret was too wrapped up with negative emotion, of contemplating failure, and, at worst, bleak and purposeless rumination. Regret, for me, was synonymous with sadness, disappointment, repentance, fruitless longing, remorse and sorrow. In the worst instances I have seen it consume people, translating into self-reproach and self-accusation, reinforcing negative core beliefs such as self-disgust and self-recrimination, and feeding that compelling saboteur voice, ‘I’m not enough’.

That isn’t to say that I don’t look back, reflect on past actions and inactions, consider what I might have done differently. It’s just that I dismissed the notion of regret during such reveries and endeavoured to bring my attention back to constructive contemplation. You could say that, for me, ‘no regrets’ was a philosophy of life.

I parked regret because I believed it was not helpful.

This was my view of regret until I heard Dan Pink speak on the subject a few weeks ago. He offered an entirely different thesis, proposing regret’s instructional and transformative value. Instructional, because regret highlights and emphasises what we value, and transformational because it points the way to how we might be in the future. Indeed, what Pink found in his research was what we regret the most, we value the most.

So, for example, if a person feels regret for not speaking up at a meeting when a senior manager made an inappropriate and exclusive comment, their process of regret might remind them of their values related to inclusion and respect and translate this thought into a commitment to the bold action of calling such behaviour out at the next opportunity. The important thing here is that, rather than ignoring or wallowing, we benefit from regret. Regrets shape our choices, prompting us toward a different action next time.

Pink also talks about the importance of self-compassion and self-disclosure and the significant part these play in shifting regret from a negative emotional experience to a positive, life-affirming process. Indeed, he denounces the ‘no regrets’ mindset and replaces it with one that is based on learning, growth and enrichment.

In the spirit of both self-compassion and disclosure, here are my top three regrets, what I have learned and continue to learn from them, and how I intend to act (and be) differently as a result of articulating them.

1. Not being more present with my children when they were younger. I genuinely and deeply endeavoured to be there for my children and to be a connected parent. I made time for them and made this a priority. However, my mind was often elsewhere, thinking about the business or about the list of things I believed I had to accomplish that day. I was with them, but often I wasn’t fully engaged. I can’t change that; it is in the past. But what I can focus on is how profoundly I value my relationship with them and commit to being fully present with them each time I am with them now, and in the future. And not just my children, I commit to striving for this in all my significant relationships.

2. Often I regret not having the courage to be more vulnerable. I was conditioned to associate vulnerability with weakness and non-acceptance. I believe it has held me back at times, inhibited me from taking risks and reduced my impact. I recognise the importance of taking a chance, of being authentic and enhancing connection through courageous disclosure. Writing this article is another step for me in being vulnerable. I pledge to take more such steps, to let others see my doubts and uncertainties rather than hiding them behind a mask of self-control and self-confidence.

3. Being a bully. This is a challenging regret for me to disclose. When I think about it, the label seems so distant from who I think I am and who I aspire to be. For the most part, I hope, my bullying lives in the distant past. But it is regret that continues to nag at me. It is one that has not entirely gone. Primarily as a consequence of the psychological abuse I experienced as a child, I found myself, in my late teenage and early adult years behaving as a persecutor, dismissing people I felt to be lesser than me, looking down on them, ridiculing them, in some instances victimising and actively humiliating them. This is a long way from what I truly value. Equity, justice, fairness, opportunity, compassion and care. This regret reminds me to do the right thing and to treat everyone I meet with respect and dignity. It reminds me to be generous. It reminds me to be kind.

So, I now ask you, what are your top three regrets. Share them with someone and be compassionate with yourself. Above all, ask yourself, what are you going to do differently, how are you going to act, next time?

“Regret makes us human.” Dan Pink