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It was raining hard as I stood looking outside from my office window. I saw people rush into my office building to take cover. I had an instant flashback to something that happened almost twenty years ago.
At the time, I managed a shop in a crowded market street and a heavy downpour led several people including some homeless ones to run inside so as to avoid the rain. I was already in a bad mood and went straight to confront them, screaming expletives and ordering them out.
I can never forget the look of disbelief in one old man’s eyes. Those eyes haunt me till this day. Now, at the sight of the people rushing in, I thought of what happened years ago and was overcome with remorse and regret.
That is the power of unresolved negative emotions.
There are so many memories that are stored in my unconscious under the folder “regret” —The girl who approached me to ask me out in high school and I told her I had other plans. Why I chose to leave the exciting challenge of working in London to come back to my comfort-zone in Ghana. The time I watched myself on video screaming at my 3-year old son for coming out of the wrong side of the car.
All my actions were fuelled by fear.
I didn’t have the emotional intelligence then to breathe, relax and to respond rather than react. Within minutes of my actions, I would be filled with regret and would ruminate on them for hours, days or even months.
In Psychology Today, regret is defined as a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.
Regret is a destructive emotion that can lead to darker ones like shame and guilt, which often marks our psyche indefinitely. It’s dangerous to dwell on regret for too long as we end up in a negative state of self-blaming that could affect our ability to move on with our lives.
We all regret many choices or actions we take in our lives, and I’m surprised when people blurt out the, “I have no regrets” maxim as if they have just graduated from Positive Psychology school.
1) Understand that regret can be a helpful emotion.
I have come to learn that regret is a fair — but tough — teacher.—Brené Brown.
How else can we learn to correct our wrongful behaviours if we don’t go through the process of thinking we were wrong? Regret is often the trigger to see our mistakes and learn how to do things differently.
Regret like all emotions has a function for survival. We need regret to fuel change in our actions. The only time we can erase those stored negative emotions from our minds is when we allow ourselves to go back, see where we went wrong and try to act right the next time around.
Later, I left my window to meet those who had rushed in to greet them and make them feel hospitable. I so desperately wanted to have that old homeless man be one of them, but he wasn’t there.
However I felt better by welcoming the people in from the strong rains outside.
2) Don’t overdo the self-blame
Most of the time there is nothing we can do to change a situation. Or we did what we could have with the awareness that we had, so it’s futile to regret. We need to acknowledge that we did the best we could, try to forgive ourselves and quickly move on with our lives.
I had admonished my son for getting out of the wrong side of the car because I was afraid of the oncoming traffic. At that time, I was new to parenting and my protective mind took over. That was the level of my awareness and I’m sure I’ll fare much better with my future grandchildren and talk with poise rather than allow my fear to overcome me.
3) Life is a marathon and not a sprint
Life is a long journey; we make mistakes, which are often opportunities to learn important lessons about ourselves, our reactions and other people. It’s how we react to those mistakes that define our lives.
I look back at my decision to leave the UK as a positive step as it afforded me the wonderful life that I have now. I own a successful business, I have a great family and I’m free of the stressful corporate world that I would no doubt have been stuck in.
4) Let go and surrender to life
Life plays a bigger game than we do. We often think we’ve missed out on an opportunity, but it turns out we were lucky not to have taken it. Other times we regret our actions, not knowing that they were necessary in the grand scheme of things.
Simply put, sometimes we just need to take a step back, let go and see the big picture instead of labelling a situation as good or bad. How many times have we seen things differently in hindsight and later realized we were fretting for nothing?
There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”
Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck? Who knows?
Regret is futile as it can lead to anxiety and rumination, but to also deny that we don’t regret some of our actions is being dishonest.
The best way to handle regrets is to acknowledge that we will have some, but to overcome them is to learn from them and let them go as quickly as possible.