We have so many sayings about regret. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Better safe than sorry. You always regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did. But for the bevy of homespun wisdom that we often take as common sense, there’s a little unexamined assumption buried under all the aphorisms. They all assume that regret is a bad thing.
But is it really? Sure, there are things that you wish you could go back and do differently in your life. There are mistakes that nag at your conscience. But just because regret can sometimes be painful doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful. In fact, regret is a necessary part of being a good person and a vital component to realizing your goals. One way to think of regret is as the psychological growing pains of being human.
How regret fuels personal growth
Simply put, regret is the emotional recognition that you’ve made a mistake. But can you imagine the personality of someone who never seemed to fully comprehend the mistakes that they’ve made? They’d be intolerable and probably incapable of any sort of personal or professional growth.
Americans, for example, tend to mistakenly associate regret with “dwelling on problems” or think of them as a kind of useless neurotic overreach. And while we should avoid a counterproductive obsession with our regrets, to avoid thinking about our mistakes at all is to completely waste our experiences.
How regret fuels personal action
Of course, admitting your mistakes is easier said than done. In my own life, I used to regret that I had spent so much of my twenties so professionally unfocused. But I kept that regret buried through my late twenties, never fully acknowledged or explored. It just sort of sat there in the back of my mind like a room I never dared go into. But slowly, over time, I really started to notice these feelings and, just as importantly, to act on them.
My regret became a lesson for me to prioritize the things in my life that I derive the deepest sense of purpose from. And once fully faced, I could start to have more sympathy with myself, if only for confronting myself honestly and empathizing with and learning from the idiosyncratic contours of my personality. In other words, another positive aspect of a regret is that only by confronting it full-on are you able to finally forgive yourself and move forward.
Regret is a recognition that life is complicated
So regret can be a teacher but, in some sense, it can also be a virtue. As professor Mark D. White writes in Psychology Today:
The propensity to feel regret can even be considered a virtue…insofar as it represents moral sensitivity to unfortunate circumstances. It is similar to the way that getting angry can be virtuous when it’s appropriate—for instance, when confronted with injustice.
In other words, regret can also mean having a sensitivity to the fact that life isn’t perfect, outcomes are sometimes beyond our control, and we’re all stuck in this situation together. In a broader sense, regret is simply the acceptance that life is complicated.
Embrace your mixed feelings
So what do we do with our regrets? As Carina Chocano offers in an Aeon essay about regret, “Mixed feelings are not only what make us human, they’re what make us truly rational. They help us arrive at complicated truths by way of a dialectic process. Rather than deny regret, we should embrace ambivalence.”
Of course, embracing ambivalence doesn’t mean also embracing a sort of fatalistic pessimism. I think that in the end the best definition of regret is also bound up with how we use it — a clear-eyed recognition about ourselves and a way to understand the difference between what we need to change and what’s impossible to change.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Bookforum, Dublin Review of Books, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter here.
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