How-to Erase Regret & Guilt

I firmly believe that in today’s world, our mental health is more aggressively under attack than our physical health. Part of that is because there are truly hundreds of barriers to good mental health, that we often have to take a broad, shotgun-style approach to educate and raise awareness. This post is solely dedicated to two very specific barriers to good mental health: Regret and Guilt.

What is Regret?

“Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to an undesirable situation.” Despite my aversion to Wikipedia, I really like this definition of regret because it addresses both points: conscious and emotional.

“Conscious regret” implies that we are effectively choosing to hold onto regret. We are choosing to feel bad. We can logically recognize that there was some incident that occurred, that caused us or those we care about to feel loss of opportunity or pain, and we feel bad about that incident. The emotional “feeling bad” remains until we choose to do something about it.

Does Regret serve a purpose?

The simple answer? No. Take a pause at this very moment to count your blessings.  Actually, just stop and count ONE blessing.  What you are grateful for NOW, couldn’t have occurred without what you’ve gone through in the past.  I am sure that if you took the time to trace the path of this one particular blessing, you’d discover it included a number of obstacles, wrong-turns, and failures to get here. Was it worth it? Was your current blessing worth the trouble to get there?

I believe in exponential increase—our greatest blessings, those things we have to be most grateful for, lay at the end of the bumpiest, messiest roads.

What would have happened if you hit that first roadblock, if you made that first mistake, and you stopped?  What would you miss?  This isn’t a hypothetical, theoretical question.  If you stopped after your first failure, the blessing you cherish so much now, wouldn’t exist.

A life-lesson in Regret

My husband tells the story of a life-lesson he learned one day. As a brief intro, you have to understand that my husband is very good at, and should take great pride in his navigating skills. He is very good at getting from point A to point B in the shortest, most convenient way.

One day, he was driving a group home from a long trip, and as he approached a freeway exit, the navigating app on his smartphone suddenly told him to exit. He ignored it, knowing that exit led to a remote, country route with a lot of stops and slow speed limits.

Just as he reached the crest of the hill, he saw that traffic on the freeway had ground to a nearly complete stop. There was a big accident causing a long delay. To make it worse, the next exit was many, many miles up the road.

There was nothing to do but continue, very slowly, through the traffic jam. As he approached the next exit, he was presented with a decision: get off and retrace his way all the way back to the previous exit, effectively eating the last 30 minutes spent in traffic and going back to start a slower, more arduous route? Or keep crawling forward through the growing traffic jam just because it was still moving in the general “right” direction?

This was a lightbulb moment for my husband. In life, do we keep crawling through the mess, burdened with regret, or do we turn around even when it means lost time, lost opportunity, or lost pride, and make the correction?

The longer answer…it can

“…regret, although painful to experience, can be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path.”

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.

There was one particular regret that haunted me for some time.  Most of the time, I could look at it logically, just as I have outlined for you above.  But sometimes, when I indulged myself in self-pity, it reared its ugly head out of the dark corners of my mind.

I held onto this particular regret because it didn’t just affect me.  It was a choice that I made that affected other people I love.

How did I overcome this particular regret?  I had to be honest and communicate and apologize to those it affected. 

Being honest included recognizing and sharing with my loved ones my weakness and failure, and eating that piece of humble pie can be a big challenge for all of us, sometimes. But, as my husband likes to say, “the juice is well-worth the squeeze”. The freedom from guilt that comes from confessing our failures far outweighs the embarrassment in the act of confessing.

In this way, regret can serve a purpose: accepting humility, opening up honest communication with those we care about, and sincerely apologizing. 

How to Erase Regret

  • Learn
  • Take Action
  • Forgive
  • Look Forward to the Future

Learn: be honest with yourself and recognize your mistakes.

Take Action: humble yourself and apologize, if necessary. Choose to take the long route around by retracing your steps.

Forgive: Forgive yourself! And if you’ve been holding onto resentment towards another that was involved in creating the regret, forgive them as well.

Look forward to the future: You’re going to make a mistake again. There will be another missed opportunity. Those two invariable truths don’t need to be paralyzing, because those mistakes help us learn to grow, and there is always a world of opportunity waiting for you.

Never Regret Anything.

What is guilt?

Guilt is a nasty little cycle we perpetuate.  It is born of three very easy steps:

  • We make a mistake or do something wrong to injure another-usually on a daily basis.
  • Someone makes us aware of our wrongdoing—not on a daily basis, so sometimes we are blissfully unaware of our wrongdoing
  • When our injuries to others are pointed out to us, we create guilt because of our shame and/or injured pride

Now, it’s a good thing to feel bad when you hurt somebody else.  It means you are a human with feelings and empathy, and not a sociopath.  Additionally, others have a right to tell us when we’ve hurt them.

Guilt enters the picture when we refuse to accept our mistakes.  Instead of recognizing our wrongdoing and seeking another’s forgiveness, we seek out ways to justify and accept our wrongdoing. Except that we don’t accept them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t feel guilty!

Thus, the guilt continues to fester inside us, instead of resolving what is causing us to feel guilty.

Does Guilt Serve a Purpose?

Guilt can be very detrimental to our physical, emotional, and mental health. That is not an understatement. If ignored, guilt will eat away at our self-worth, it will re-write positive messages in our mind with negative ones, and it can paralyze us from engaging in other healthy social activities.

This occurs when we “buy in” to the negative messages of guilt, like:

  • You are innately a bad person
  • Nothing you can do can fix this
  • Why try? You’re only going to fail again

If someone you loved confessed to you that they had any of these thoughts, you would immediately dismiss them as not true, wouldn’t you? Do you have the same clear, presence of mind to tell yourself the same?

Let me warn you: your mental health needs a warrior to defend it who practices constant vigilance. If we allow–and yes, I say “allow” because only we have true power over ourselves–if we allow one false, negative message through a chink in our armor, like a magnet, it will pull others to it quickly and aggressively.

How to Erase Guilt

Not a failing to make a mistake. Alan Watts

Mistakes are a natural part of life.  Mistakes are what push us to grow and what refines our character.  (Read more about the perniciousness of perfectionism here)

Real freedom from guilt, freedom that allows us to wake in the morning fresh and happy, that allows us to work effectively every day and enables us to serve and bless the lives of others includes and allows for the freedom to make mistakes. 

The key is Restitution.  Restitution is compensation for injury. Many times restitution for guilt can be made through a simple, sincere conversation. We’re not paying money to replace the candy bar we stole from the grocery store or to replace the broken window from our stray baseball. We’re “paying” with an admission of wrongdoing and acceptance of causing injury to another, coupled with sorrow and empathy for their pain.

What I’ve Learned about Regret & Guilt

Regret and Guilt are really two-sides of the same coin. They are so closely linked to one another. While regret can involve just us–including just regret for a missed opportunity, guilt comes when you add in another individual, and you have the increased responsibility of making things right not just for yourself, but for them as well.

Whatever side of the coin lays currently in your lap, I will repeat that doing whatever you can to Erase regret and guilt from your life is well-worth the sacrifice. We always make the challenge appear so much worse than it is.

Take the first step: be honest with yourself; and then borrow my assurance: you won’t “regret” it. 😉

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