The Use and Abuse of Regret
Two weeks ago, I asked Lifehack.org readers what advice you’d offer to your younger self, knowing what you know today. The responses were a little overwhelming — powerful, powerful stuff. More and better responses than I had hoped for, to be honest.
I’m not sure what advice I’d offer my younger self. I’ve messed up a lot, taken a lot of wrong turns, but even the wrong turns have led me to interesting places. I know I’d tell myself to be careful with those credit cards and student loans — 37-year old me isn’t all too happy with 22-year old me’s spending habits!
But other than that, there’s little that I’d want to change — and any advice I could offer myself would potentially have robbed me of some of my more foolish and enriching experiences, like chasing a girlfriend to London even though I knew our relationship was past saving. I spent 6 months in London, and another 6 traveling Europe and living in Heidelberg, and formed the relationship that would give me 7 good years of loving and support.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a good part of the question I posed was about regret, about what we would change if we had it to do all over again. I think regret can be pretty useful in the short term — for example, you regret saying something that hurt someone and make it up to them, or you regret making a mistake and resolve not to make it again.
But in the long term, regret has an insidious edge to it. When we start second-guessing our past, it’s a short step to second-guessing our present, and ultimately our selves. If the things that brought us to where we are today were mistakes, then it follows that where we are today — who we are today — is a mistake.
And that’s unacceptable. I’m not saying we have to accept every little thing about ourselves — obviously, as a writer for lifehack.org, I believe in the possibility of personal development — but I think we have to accept the core of who we are, or at least accept the reality of who and what we are before we can set forth on the path of personal change.
Regret — the deep, long-term kind of regret — keeps us focused not on who and what we are but on what we did and what we should have done or not done. We cant fix the past, alas — we can only fix the outcome of the past in the present. Like my lifehack.org colleague Adrian Savage recently suggested, to move forward we have to be willing to let go of the past. Not deny it, but stop obsessing over it, stop combing through it looking for ways to undo it — and instead, start looking at the present for ways to change going forward into the future.
But maybe there’s another, more positive way to think about regret. Regret is, in a sense, what’s left when you subtract what you knew then from what you know now. As my question and our responses suggested, if we’d known at 15, 20, or 25 what we know at 30, 40, or 50, we’d have acted differently. We’d have made choices that our older self would be happy with (though they might have made our younger self miserable). Regret is what happens when you learn.
And in that sense, maybe regret isn’t such a bad thing, after all — it’s the trace that a lifetime of experience and development leaves in us. You wouldn’t want to guide your life with it, but you also wouldn’t want to be without it, at least a little bit. Not feeling regret would mean you hadn’t learned anything from your experiences — that maybe you hadn’t had any expedriences worth having.
I think that’s the spirit in which you, our readers, responded to my “We Ask, You Answer” question. Not with the kind of regret that’s a negative dwelling in the past, but with the kind of regret that is, in the end, something rather more joyous: an embrace of the past, of the mistakes we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned from them.
It’s taken me a week longer to return to this question than usual (I usually write a follow-up a week after posting a “We Ask, You Answer” question) because — and I don’t mean to be funny here — when I really started thinking about the question I kind of regretted asking it. It wasn’t until I could wrap my head around the question as a way of bringing forth from the murky depths those things which have made us who we are today — the mistakes that have made us who we are today — that I felt comfortable revisiting the topic.
I want to thank everyone who responded for their efforts. The responses were amazing and well worth a read. Taken as a whole, they’re a not-too-shabby primer on life itself, and there’s a lot of good advice there. Which is what I’d originally hoped for — it wasn’t until after the fact that I started thinking about the “bigger picture” implications of all this.
Next week we return to our regular “We Ask, You Answer” question with something quite a bit lighter! See you then!
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