I’m currently doing a meditation series on regret. In addition to the sitting part of it, one of the exercises is to write a list of regrets and reflect on them for thirty seconds before letting them fly away.
I like to think that I don’t really have any regrets, but of course I was able to make a list. Not a very long one, but I quickly realized that the common thread between everything was the fact that I still ruminate on how my life would be if something had happened a different way. They all ended up being turning points in my life, not because I chose them to be at the time, but because looking back I can see that they pushed my life either subtly or drastically down a different path.
Most of my regrets can be captured in a person’s name: past relationships, romantic and other, in which I was either hurt or acted like a fool, or with people who weren’t worth my time and attention. Relationships I have certainly recovered from, in the simplest sense of the word, but that float across my mind now and then always in a wave of half nostalgia, half shame.
What is this shame?
Sometimes the shame feels red in my cheeks: true embarrassment about how I behaved with someone, a disbelief that it was me who lived through that, a cringe and a hand against my forehead. Stories that maybe if I don’t tell, they won’t exist, forgotten in a cloud of stories of drunken nights out and rebounds.
Sometimes the shame feels black in my stomach: anger, sadness, betrayal that send me searching for a cocoon in which to hide until the feeling passes. What is the feeling? Feeling like I should have been able to force a different outcome, like I somehow failed.
What is this shame?
After years and years have gone by, do I still look back on these events and see myself as a failure because they didn’t turn out another way? Am I somehow blaming myself for not being able to protect myself from the eventual outcome?
Regret starts out as wishing the past were different so that I could avoid pain, avoid the fallout I can see in retrospect. It is an impossible position to put myself in: I’m essentially judging myself today for something I did in the past, when I didn’t have, then, all the information I do, now. When I wasn’t even the same person I am now.
The ironic thing of course is that by clinging to this judgment, I cannot truly let the past go. I want so much for the past not to define me, and yet here I am, dredging it up in my mind and stewing on it. In no way can this serve me, can this allow me to look forward in my life.
It’s a contradiction, it seems: the events or people I regret don’t define me (that is, they are not the way I need to judge myself), but they are part of my story (that is, they’re not going away just by wishing). I think the key is that I can either choose to cover them up in a blanket of shame and denial, or I can own them as mistakes and lessons and learn from them. That would be a true regret: not stepping back far enough to see what I learned, not learning how to reframe the thought of, “I wish that hadn’t happened like that,” to “from that, I learned…”.