One of my big mental health drains is regret. Why didn’t I get married earlier, so I could have support now? Why didn’t I save more money when I was younger, so I wouldn’t be struggling as much now? These are the questions that keep me up at night and really depress me, taking away from my quality of life NOW. How do I get rid of regret? –C.L., via email
I’ve had a lot of requests to write a newsletter about regret—specifically about regret over things that cannot be changed, and how it can sabotage us in the present. And I have a lot of feelings about it, because I’ve been through some painful things, yet I no longer spend time with regret. (I should also mention I’ve done a lot of therapy—I didn’t learn to navigate these feelings by myself.)
The earliest memory I have of regret goes back to fifth grade, when one of the kids in my new school told me I had a booger, so I went to the bathroom, but when I came back booger-free, Dawna Bewersdorf started a rumor that I had picked my nose. All the kids made fun of me for the rest of the day, and I spent all night crying in my room and wondering, “Why didn’t I just grab a tissue right there?” (I had picked my nose, but that’s not the point.)
That was the first moment that I realized one small decision could have a major negative ripple, and that the burden of “what if” was heavy and all-consuming.
Then in my early 20’s, I found myself fresh out of rehab and desperately clinging to my recovery. I no longer had the distraction of my addiction to numb the trauma I had experienced in my teens; I had to rebuild my health, career, finances, and relationships; and I had to face all of the less-than-upstanding things I had done in the throes of my addiction. I spent that year swimming in regret. What if, why not, why didn’t I, how could I? I constantly beat myself up and dragged my worth and value through the gutter before anyone could do it for me. When I relapsed a year later, it felt like my just desserts.
It wasn’t until I entered into recovery for the last time, commitment to regular therapy sessions (which I maintain to this day), and discovery of The Work of Byron Katie that my relationship with regret began to change.
Loving what is
I discovered The Work of Byron Katie in 2013. My son had just been born, and I was in weekly marriage counseling with my son’s father, trying half-heartedly (and futilely) to “save” our relationship. During this period, I was also heavily steeped in regret. How could I have trusted so blindly? Just a few years ago, I was smart, successful, independent—how had I strayed so far from myself? What if I hadn’t continued to give him “another chance,” or if I had just listened to what people who loved me were advising? Would I still be in this painful mess?
What my Byron Katie practice kept bringing me back to, however, was this: “You could not have done anything different. You could not have done anything better. Do you know how I know that this is true? Because you didn’t.”
It took me more than a few repetitions to understand, but when it landed, it landed HARD.
If I am committed to accepting reality, the truth is, I couldn’t have done anything differently. Because if I could have, I would have. What happened, happened. Where I am now, I am now. And it had to go the way that it went, because it did. That is my reality.
That realization prompted a huge shift in my present-day mindset. I could not have acted on my mistrust—I know this because I didn’t. I could not have listened to family and friends—I know this because I didn’t. Spending so much time in a space that doesn’t exist means my energy, effort, and time are flowing towards things that didn’t happen and aren’t real, instead of applying all of that energy, effort, and time to what IS real for me NOW.
So allow me to reflect this back to you, dear C.L.: Why didn’t you get married earlier? You could not have. You weren’t ready, it wasn’t the right time, or you simply weren’t capable of that behavior then. How do I know this? Because you didn’t. That is what is.
Why didn’t you save more money earlier? You could not have. You weren’t ready, it wasn’t the right time, or you simply weren’t capable of that behavior then. How do I know this? Because you didn’t. That is what is.
I need you to understand that you didn’t because you couldn’t have, and you cannot fault yourself for that. And spending all of this time ruminating in regret is having a negative impact now. But the good news is, you actually can do something about that, right this minute.
Shifting your mindset from “what was” to “what is”
First, by shifting into regret every night (in your words, “losing sleep and making you depressed”), you’re not being very kind to yourself, and that’s having a negative impact on your self-confidence, self-esteem, and mental health. This is something you can change now.
If you could have done it differently, you would have. But you could not—and it’s time to accept that with love for Past You. You can’t fault yourself for not knowing the future, not having all the facts, or not being as mature, insightful, or world-wise as you are today. Use the “best friend” trick—if your friend came to you saying, “I’m SO dumb, how could I have been so trusting?” What would you tell them? Most likely, “You weren’t dumb, you just didn’t know then what you know now, and you did the best you could at the time. Please don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s not fair or kind.”
It’s not your fault. You didn’t know then. You couldn’t have done it any better than you did. Instead of being mad at yourself or beating yourself up, have compassion. “I didn’t know. I can’t fault myself for that. I did the best I could. I know more now. I can do better now.”
You’re also giving away all your power when you focus your time, energy, and effort on things that aren’t grounded in your current reality. This is also something you can change now.
Spending time in what you could have done or should have done isn’t acknowledging what IS—where you are NOW. I could have been less trusting (not reality), versus I am in the middle of a painful divorce (reality). I could have saved more money (not reality), versus I am living paycheck to paycheck today (reality). One of these mindsets robs you of your power, leaving you to spend all your energy on things that aren’t true and never will be. The other grounds you in where you are now (“what is”) and allows you to take immediate action that will lead to real positive impact.
That is what we are committing to do, together—show ourselves grace for what was, and focus on accepting what is. Here is your template:
I give myself grace for what I have done or not done in the past. I didn’t know, and I could not have done better. I did the best I could. I accept that, I thank myself for that, and I gently close the door on ruminating on things that I cannot change.
Now, I commit to accepting what is. Where am I today—what is my present reality? Can I accept this reality without judgment or telling myself a story about what this reality means about me? (Here’s where a therapist, journal practice, or Katie’s “the Work” can come in handy.) What actions, mindset shifts, or practices can I do NOW to ground me in my current reality and move me towards positive change?
Reclaim your power
Once I shifted my energy, time, and efforts from “how could I have let this happen” to “I am in the middle of a divorce, and my life is about to change,” I felt more free, powerful, and hopeful than I could have imagined. Moving from the past into the present and accepting where I was in this moment without telling myself a story about what it meant about me allowed me to focus on what I could do now.
I began envisioning my life free from the stress, loneliness, and pain that accompanied my marriage. I became determined to seek happiness wherever I could, even though I was going something hard. I focused on what I could do to build a loving life for me and my son, and continue to grow my business after I bought him out. And… it worked. The more I focused on NOW (without judgment or story), the more forgiving I became of myself in the past, and the more powerful I felt to effectuate the changes that I knew would move me forward in a healthy way.
It wasn’t an easy process, and it wasn’t linear—but regular work and therapy helped tremendously, as did me sharing vulnerably with a few people I trusted and who loved me. If regret has a hold of you right now, I invite you to recognize the ways it’s not actually serving you, gently release it (and the negative talk that may accompany it) and embrace what is—reclaiming your power and directing your considerable energy and talents from what could have happened to what you can make happen right this minute.
Does this resonate with you? Is there any other aspect of regret that you feel you still must cling to? If so, why? DM me on Instagram @melissau and tell me what you think.