When I was still shamefully hiding my secret past about being trafficked, I would often agree with friends when we talked about not having any regrets because everything we’ve done and experienced has made us the people we are today. I always knew I was lying and now that I’ve come out with my story, I feel empowered to tell the truth about regrets, also.
Why do people deny having regrets so often? I have never heard a conversation or interview about it where the person didn’t say something like, “Well, it was a tough childhood, but I wouldn’t change a thing—it made me the person I am today and I like that person!” Or “I screwed up a lot but it made me who I am, so I have no regrets.”
It sounds positive, doesn’t it? It also sounds like denial to me; I know it was when I said it.
When a friend recently said something like the comments above, I asked, “Do you really have no regrets? I have a lot!” When she asked what they were, I replied, “I deeply regret everything I did that hurt someone who cared for me. I regret feeling so worthless I put myself in the position to be strangled almost to death in the Sahara Hotel. I regret not being present and physically helpful to my dad when he was dying. I regret not walking Emerson every day, knowing it brought him such joy. That’s just off the top of my head.”
That led us to a beautiful conversation. We decided we can appreciate our journeys, value the lessons, and see the connections between our pasts and presents while we can also have regrets. We don’t intend to wallow in them, but we don’t intend to ignore and deny them anymore, either.
I believe we come into the world with purposes and gifts. There are forks in the road where we have choices to make and depending on which we take, the journey will be different; but what if, like I believe, the outcome would be the same? What if we would still be considered the same: resilient because we survived violent abuse or because we made it through law school; courageous because we publicly shared our story of shame or climbed Mount Everest alone; free because we used our voice to stop further exploitation or because we learned healthy boundaries and stopped people pleasing? We would still be “who we are today” whether we chose the road less or more traveled.
Perhaps my 12-step training has something to do with how I feel about this. If a person has no regrets does that mean they never feel they need to make amends to anyone? That’s a significant portion of recovery! Does it mean they have nothing to apologize for because it was all meant to be? That must be a burdenless place to live, feeling they can do anything and not regret it because it’s part of the big plan to make them the person they currently are at any given moment.
I often joke with my sister that I have an Olympic Gold Medal in apologizing, that I seem to be doing it constantly even if I have to go back decades to find a harm to right, and that I’m confident I’ll never run out of opportunities to say, “I’m sorry.” There’s a good chance I need to look within and see where I take on others’ responsibility and end up apologizing to them when it’s not my shame or regret to own. I may be too attached to regretting, forgiving, and making amends. Taking responsibility for everything in my life has brought me great freedom, though, because I believe if I am responsible, I have the ability to change the habit, action, or situation. I’m still learning not to steal that potential freedom from others by taking on what is really theirs to work through.
It seems when we talk about regrets, we talk about it in a passive way: these things happened so they were meant to be. What if we think of them in an active way, living intentionally committed to not creating any new regrets? That seems more beneficial than pretending we’ve never done anything that caused a sense of loss, or sadness, or disappointment.
Deny it and you’ll repeat it; own it and you can change it. Which will you choose?
President, The Zen Speaker
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