Let’s Talk About… Regrets

By Jeremy Godwin.

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.

This week I’m talking about regrets – why we have regrets, how they can impact on our mental health, and how to work through your regrets so you can get past them for the sake of your wellbeing. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.

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Introduction

Regrets. In the words of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield;

“Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it is good only for wallowing in.” 

Katherine Mansfield

That’s the thing with regret – it robs you of today and tomorrow, because you end up so worried about something that happened yesterday; something which you can never change, no matter how hard you might you try.

The way that you deal with regrets is a big part of improving your mental health and wellbeing because it is inevitable in life that you’re going to make mistakes, have setbacks, be on the receiving end of upsetting news (and you’ll probably even make a mess of things from time to time) – but life isn’t about never falling down, because you will, no matter what you do to avoid it happening. Life is about how you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn the lessons that you need to learn and then keep on keeping on, one day at a time. That’s the focus of this week’s episode: confronting regrets, learning what you need to learn from them, then letting go of them so they won’t hold you back. First, let’s define ‘regrets’ and why we have them.

Defining ‘regrets’ and mental health

Regret is a feeling we can have about something that we’ve done or failed to do in the past. It’s sadness, mourning and disappointment all rolled into one horrible little package, and if you let regrets take up too much space in your mind you may find yourself weighed down by it, and feel unable to let your regrets go. 

If you look up the word ‘regret’ in the thesaurus (which I did, because I’m a writer – so why say things with just one word when you can choose from a list of many?!), you’ll see that ‘regret’ has some really shitty counterparts: remorse, sorrow, guilt, repentance, shame, etc. etc. These aren’t exactly fun emotions we’re talking about here – those types of emotions over the long term are some soul-destroying, joy-smothering stuff.

Regrets are a sign that consciously or subconsciously you feel that if you had done something differently in the past then things might have turned out better. For the purposes of today’s episode I’m focusing on things that you feel regret about that are within your control – i.e. Things that you have said or done (or not said or done) in the past. What I’m not talking about is regret over a lost relationship with a loved one (that’s grief, a topic for a future episode), or thinking about something that another person did or said to you (that’s anger or hurt – again, topics for future episodes). This episode is all about you and dealing with your own regrets; in other words, the things in your direct control.

Why do we have regrets? Two reasons. First: we feel negatively about the outcome of some situation. Secondly: we find ourselves playing the “what if?” game, either consciously or subconsciously. What I mean by that is that we may be ruminating over what happened or didn’t happen, and thinking through ways that we could change the outcome by acting or speaking differently. Now, that’s part of our learning process – the ability we each have to objectively review our past actions and consider what worked (so we can do more of that in the future) and what didn’t work (so we can do less of that or come at it from a different angle next time), and it’s an essential tool that we all possess which has contributed not only to you making it to adulthood (because if you didn’t learn critical survival lessons as a child then you would be unlikely to make it this far) but also to our entire species making it to the stage we’re at now – we’ve come a long way from our ancestors who hadn’t even discovered how to create fire, and it’s this ability to learn from our actions which has been fundamental to our individual and collective growth and remains that way. So in that context, regret can be helpful because it can help us to identify how to behave in the future.

However, when you’re struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, ‘regret’ often becomes a weapon that our minds use against us. If you’ve listened to or read the episode I did on Overthinking (all the way back in Episode 4), you’ll remember I talked about ruminating and worrying – worry is about what may or may not happen in the future, whilst ruminating is when you go over and over stuff that happened in the past. 

Sometimes we can get stuck in this loop of regretting stuff that happened and it comes back into our minds time and time again; and, instead of learning from it, we let it fill us with guilt and shame and remorse. When you’re already feeling pretty crappy thanks to mental illness, it’s not like ruminating over the past is doing us any good – quite the opposite, actually. Often we just can’t see past the event, and so we find ourselves returning to it over and over and over. Why? Because we feel guilt and/or shame about whatever it is that happened or didn’t happen, and sometimes it’s because new information or new perspectives have come to light since then – details which we think may have influenced us to make different choices.

Here is the hardest bit to accept about regret and rumination: you can spend the rest of your life obsessing over what happened or didn’t happen, what you said or didn’t say… but you cannot change it. Unless you have a time machine (which you don’t) nothing will ever change. EVER. (But if you do have a time machine, call me and let’s go check out Ancient Egypt together).

Did you make a mistake? Accept it, forgive yourself and let the guilt go. Did you fail to say or do something and now you think you should have or could have? Okay, but what useful purpose is that going to serve? None. I don’t want to be blunt here, but I can’t emphasise this point enough: you can’t change the past; all you can do is learn from it and grow. And going over it and over it until you’re blue in the face isn’t growing, it’s stagnating. 

Making a bad choice in the past doesn’t make you a bad person – it makes you human. Having regrets doesn’t make you a bad person – it makes you human. And does having regrets make you weak? No! It makes you human. Nobody is perfect. It’s what you do with those regrets that counts. 

Do I have regrets? Yes, absolutely! But I’ve learned to confront them, process them so I can learn from them, and then release them. There are a few major things which still pop up for me from time to time, like choosing to end certain friendships or being distant from particular relatives, and during the worst of my depression and anxiety the guilt and regret was overwhelming. 

We all make mistakes. If you’ve never done something that you’re not proud of, then you’ve obviously been living in a cave for your entire life. We humans are messy creatures – we do stuff based on our values and our beliefs, or the situations that we find ourselves in, and then we spend weeks and months and years beating ourselves up over what did or didn’t happen.

I think there is a huge difference between malicious intent and innocent intent, but the line isn’t always clear and you can very easily get into murky territory. We’re never going to get it right all the time, and sometimes we will do things for entirely selfish reasons, or because we don’t see the bigger picture, or because we lose control over our emotions, or whatever the case might be. But if you let your regrets control you, then they will control you. A life of regret becomes a life that is filled with sorrow over past actions and fear of future actions, and that’s no way to live a life.

With time and effort I was able to reframe the stuff I had regrets about so that I could then make decisions about my life here in the present, and in the future, which would incorporate the lessons of the things that I cannot change from the past – as I’ve said in earlier episodes, the only true mistake is the one you don’t learn from. 

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to tackle regrets.

Dealing with regret

I’m going to talk first about mindset then we’ll get into how to deal with specific regrets. Let me say, as I usually do in these episodes, that the advice I’m giving you is intended to give you tools that you can use to work on your own self-development and growth; it is not a substitute for professional therapy and if you’re dealing with serious, debilitating issues around regret and remorse that are having a damaging effect on your mental health and wellbeing then it’s really important to talk to a professional – it might be necessary to use techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy to process your regrets and manage them for the sake of your health. With that said, there are things you can do as well.

Let’s begin, like I said, with your general mindset. You always have the power to choose your mindset, and to quote the Robbie Williams song No Regrets (one of my favourites of his), “No regrets… they don’t work.” Regrets don’t work – they only serve to remind you of things you cannot change and distract you from the present. If you choose to adopt a ‘no regrets’ mindset in everything you do – and if you do and say things from a place of kindness, compassion and understanding (and if you do things that do not hurt others or yourself) – then you’re off to a pretty strong start in the ‘no regrets’ territory. Often, thoughts pop up without our control, but it’s what we do with those thoughts – how we either accept them or reject them, and how we then turn them into feelings – that we do have control over, so make the choice every single day to cast aside regret. There’s a quote by an unknown author that goes;

“You can’t have rosy views about the future if your mind is full of the blues about the past.”

Unknown

With that said, sometimes regrets require much more work than simply choosing not to have them – so let’s talk about how to tackle specific regrets that you may have.

First, identify why you might be having feelings of regret. Dig deep – I say that a lot, and for good reason: you need to understand what is really going on deep within yourself so you can deal with the root cause of the regret. Is it because your actions or inaction caused loss? Did your actions cause grief? Did they cause sorrow? Is it because you think that you would have made different decisions because of what you know now? Understand clearly what is driving your regret.

Next, confront reality. The reality is that what has happened has happened and you cannot change it, no matter how hard you might try or how much time you spend going over and over it – the result is still going to be the result. Often we have 20/20 vision in hindsight; in other words, we can see things much more clearly later on down the track because we have more information or because the true nature of things has become clearer to us… but that doesn’t change what happened or didn’t happen. Let go of the illusion that you have any control whatsoever over the past, because you don’t.

Forgive yourself for whatever happened or didn’t happen. If you can make it right, then make it right… but often you can’t, because it’s done and long-gone, so all you can do is forgive yourself. You made the decision that you made at the time and it is what it is. If you made a mistake, accept that you made a mistake then forgive yourself and let it go.

Deal with whatever the outcome is. If the thing you have regret over is recent, you will likely still be dealing with its effects – so deal with it as it is today (in other words, deal with objectively and with a focus on things being what they are rather than what you wish they were). Learn from what happened and, if you can, take action to rectify the situation or make it right. A note here about apologies: they should be sincere and heartfelt, and you should be clear that you understand exactly what you’re apologising for and what you’ve learned from the situation… but the other person is under no obligation to accept your apology, and you need to accept that. It is not your words that will deliver the true apology, but your actions – and that takes time. Apologies are often more about us than they are the recipient; even when they’re genuine they are something we do to share our remorse but they can never serve to control what the other person does or doesn’t do with our apology. Only time and action can right past wrongs.

Finally, accept that what has happened in the past is part of your journey. If you thought I was going to get through an episode about regrets without mentioning the French song No Regrets made famous by Edith Piaf, you would be sorely mistaken. But rather than focus on the obvious and clichéd discussion about the song (oh look, she said no regrets!), I want to take a couple of minutes to look at some of the specific lyrics – this might be a bit philosophical and existential, but so be it!

The original French title of the song is «Non, je ne regrette rien» and the literal English translation of that is, “No, I do not regret anything.” There’s a point in that title that feels really defiant – it’s as though it’s almost expected that we must all have regrets and spend much, if not all, of our time ruminating over what we could change if we could. Piaf may not have written the song, but she is fully connected to it; if you know her backstory, you’ll know that she lived a life of pain and sorrow and extreme poverty starting in childhood – yet, she sings defiantly that she would not change anything. Why? Because without those experiences she would not be Edith Piaf. 

You are where you are today because of everything that led you to this point, so instead of fighting with yourself over what can never be changed you need to accept that you are where you are and then start from there, and look for the gifts that your past (even the bad stuff in your past) can possibly help to deliver today to make a better future. 

There’s an account on Instagram I love which is by Nansia Movidi (@nansiamovidi), and in a recent post she said;

“If I had the power to go back and change the events, circumstances, people I chose to invest in, I’d change nothing. I am who I am today because of all those events, circumstances, and people I chose to invest in.”

Nansia Movidi

That’s how I feel about my own experiences with depression and anxiety, and every other thing that has happened in my life – without any of that I wouldn’t be where I am today, and in fact I made a choice a long time ago that I could either let myself be reduced by what had happened to me or I could learn to draw from it to build something out of it. 

When it comes to regrets, what it all boils down to is this: when you choose to look at the things you have regrets over as being just part of your journey through this life, and treat them as opportunities to grow and do better now and in the future, you begin to take back control and then even the unpleasant stuff becomes part of your story, part of your journey, part of your evolution. You can choose to be weighed down by pain, or you can use it to drive yourself forward to a better place. The choice is always yours.

Summary and three main points to consider

To summarise: regrets will eat away at you if you let them, but they serve no useful purpose other than to show us what to do differently in the future. You cannot change the past, only learn from it. If you made a mistake: learn the lesson you need to learn, put things right and forgive yourself… then get on with living your life, one day at a time and with your eyes forward, instead of constantly looking back over your shoulder. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, and choose to live a life where you reject regrets and, instead, embrace personal growth.

To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:

  • Regrets are a result of feelings of guilt and shame over things you did or said in the past (or didn’t do/didn’t say)
  • The biggest thing that all regrets have in common is that they happened in the past – and you cannot change the past, no matter how hard you try: as Shakespeare said, “What’s gone and what’s past help should be past grief”
  • Rather than beating yourself up over something that did or didn’t happen, take the time to learn the lesson and put things right so you don’t repeat it again – because that is how you grow

Reflection

As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is from Oscar Wilde, and it is:

To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.

Oscar Wilde

So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:

  • Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
  • Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
  • Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily) – I also do a daily ‘The Simple Truth Is…’ series on my other Instagram account which is @jeremygodwinofficial

Next week I’ll be talking about resilience – I’ll be talking about what resilience is, how it affects your mental health, and how to build  your resilience in order to help you deal with setbacks and challenges. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time.

On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the Subscribe page on the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox every week.

If you’re looking to work with an experienced coach who specialises in mental health and wellbeing, I offer coaching services to clients anywhere in the world via video conference – have a look at the ‘coaching’ section of the website for more information and my rates. Visit: www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching

Have an absolutely fantastic week! Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – because you get back what you give out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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