Is Regret a Bad Thing?

Forgiveness begins when we realize we are suffering because of something that happened in the past. Forgiving others is usually triggered by the pain associated with anger or resentment. Forgiving ourselves starts when we become aware of regret.

Regret, or guilt, is a feeling of sadness or disappointment associated with something we have done.

Maybe it is an offhand comment at work you wish you would have more completely thought through. The funny feeling in your stomach clues you in. Maybe you feel heavy in your heart. A lump in the throat. You reflect and decide to handle things differently next time.

A more extreme example can be found in my personal life. I became a mother at nineteen. My son and I were inseparable. He was (and is) the light in my universe. But, before he came into the world, I had struggled with the pain of a traumatic childhood with substances and acting out. As he grew older, I became less sure about how to parent. I had, after all, started taking care of myself at age seven. I didn’t have a role model. Gradually the old ways crept back into my life—our lives. By the time my son was nine, I was homeless, emaciated and surrounded by some of the most dangerous people you can imagine. Zach was with my parents.

I missed holidays, reunions, and the first day of school. I missed boy scout outings and questions about life. But, so much more importantly, he missed having a mother. I broke his little, innocent, trusting heart. My choices changed the trajectory of his life. Plain and simple.

Getting present to the remorse (deep regret) I felt for the mistakes I made as a mother was the first step in forgiving myself. It sucked. It would wash over me, and I would fall to my knees. I couldn’t breathe. The tears came, and they came, and they came. Then, I would stand up and move forward knowing I was one step closer than before to being free from the contempt I felt for myself, and more available for my family.

You see, when we don’t hold onto or judge the pain, we heal. But, some people misunderstand the non-judgment happening in the present moment with letting ourselves or others off the hook. That’s as confused as two plus two equals three.

The pain dissipates and peace emerges, but that doesn’t mean the mental aspect of regret goes away. I wish things had been different. I wish I were there when his molars came in and when he made the football team. I wish I hadn’t suffered so much. I don’t expect that will ever change. The key to finding strength in the moment is recognizing we cannot change the past. As long as we are honest with ourselves, process the pain, and forgive, we can still be free from the suffering for those mistakes.

One important thing to remember as you learn to process the pain of your regret is that you don’t have the power to take another human being off their path. When the ones we love hurt we want it to be different; that is compassion. But, the truth is, feeling pain is part of living. As long as we hold onto the narrative that what we did somehow changed things from what was supposed to happen to something else, we are telling those around us they are other than they should be. That simply isn’t true, ever.

Regret is a natural human experience. It is not good or bad, it is a teacher. When we find our power we create space for those we love to find theirs. It isn’t easy to forgive, if it were we would live in a more forgiving world. It takes commitment and resolve. But, almost all of us have the capacity for it. The question is, will you choose it?