Are you who you used to be? Specifically, are you the person who made that mistake, held that view now regarded as reprehensible or ignorant, committed that harm years or decades ago? We often speak and treat one another as though each of us is the sum of all our past beliefs and actions, nothing added, subtracted or transformed.
We all live in what I call the regret matrix. A parallel universe of existing and former regrets that can swirl in and out of your consciousness. Sometimes you visit it and sometimes it visits you. Something reminds you of a moment that was not your best or even something you have been trying to forget. Out of nowhere a feeling of great loss and emptiness comes over you like a ghost visiting you with a regret or two. Parents are frequent visitors to the matrix of regrets. Parents always teeter on the edge of guilt across the street from regret. So many things that they could have done, things they should have done in hindsight.
But regrets are not all bad. They are benchmarks that you have carved in your timeline. You know why they are there. They remind us of our darker moments and can push us to be a better human.
Every week I talk to somebody confessing some opportunity lost or something they could have done differently. Always encrusted with great remorse or self-criticism about what they could have done or what they should have done. They should on themselves over and over.
I also work with people who have been recently released from prison, incarcerated usually for more than a decade. Amazing people who have been given and took full advantage of the “opportunity” to rethink what they did and what they could have done, the life they led and could lead. They have lived in the matrix. I also meet with people who have been self-incarcerated for much longer who have spent little or no time grappling with their pasts. They know little of self-reflection, repent or reparations. We all need to incorporate the wonderful practice of restorative justice—restoring your understanding of who you are and what you have done. Acknowledging and reconciling with the “victims”. The beautiful principles embedded in the 12 step program of admission and making amends.
Recently I was confronted in a Zoom class about something I wrote many, many years ago. Something that deeply offended one of my students. But when it was raised, I remembered it and I immediately thought of the “perfect” rationale of why I wrote those words. As she described in great detail the pain I had caused her, I tensed up and all of my defense mechanisms activated. In front of a live class, I tried to put reactions aside and put my energy into listening with as much empathy as I could muster. Was challenging to digest the emotionality of her accusations and the trauma I caused her. I tried to gather myself and quiet my overly analytical mind. Intention is never a defense. I apologized. At first, because I knew I had to. But as I apologized, I realized what I had done was wrong then and now. I looked into the eyes of my accuser, and sincerely attempted to express remorse for what I had done and for the pain I caused. I committed to erasing that document from the web. She gave me the impression that my acknowledgement was appreciated. The whole conversation took me into new frontiers of the matrix to visit regrets I did not know existed. And a tiny fraction of the many things I had said and done that were wrong and offensive.
In the end, and as I think of it now, I am grateful for this exchange. It was a challenging, real, and deeply human experience. That jolted me out of my comfortable and “the ends justify the means” sense of self.
We all did things, said things and wrote things that we wish we could do over. They are part of our record and history. And at the same time, we are never the worst things we have done. If we grow from our history, from our regrets, then we evolve our humanity.
I warned my kids about their social media posts!! 😊
Our regret matrix is filled with these truthful vignettes. Some we have paved over with the rationalizations of youth, era, and circumstance. When we relive these vignettes, they can break open our hearts to our brokenness and our capacity to change. To make us more conscious about our values and principles and how we work to align them in our words and actions.
The matrix is not a performative tool for being PC or to virtue signal. It is a mirror.
We are good at rationalizing. Explaining what happened. Protecting our precious egos. We tell ourselves and others, stories that simplify things to short circuit the matrix. People say half-truths, that they think are clever, about potential regrets, that unintentionally damage them. “My first two marriages ended in divorce–we were just too young.” “Yes, I have left a few jobs because the fit was not right.” “I am so busy I don’t have time for my friends anymore.” “Someday, I am hoping to finish my Master’s degree.” “I didn’t become a doctor because I wasn’t good at math.” “I was a great executive director of the non-profit, just not good at fundraising.” I wish I made these up. 😊 I overdose on chill pills to not go into 60 minutes mode! I want to give them all a fast pass to the matrix.
Age is a function of regrets. The more you have the older you are. The weight of unrequited regrets decalcifies the body, mind and spirit. You start mumbling semi-intelligible words about what coulda shoulda been.
Wallowing, worrying and wondering are a waste of time.
Are regrets good or bad? Yes! They are both. They are undercover agents of change that can switch sides. They can undermine or enhance your mindset. You choose.
We all make mistakes, commit errors, do things that we would do differently if we could. Daniel Pink’s new book The Power of Regret, backed by the findings of the World Regret Survey, show in your 20s and 30s, you regret things you didn’t do. Later in your 40s 50s and 60s, you tend to regret things you did. Parents regret both.
The fact that we can study regrets and think about them says something about our privilege to begin with. So our regrets live in the great abundance of the opportunities for us to improve and pursue our best selves.
We should effectively use and understand regrets in the constellation of things that occur and happen as we learn and grow and progress in our lives. For regrets are signposts of our deepening understanding of who we are, what we want and where we are going.
The real question is, are we willing to change? Are we now doing less harm and more good? Are we taking responsibility for what we did and did not do? Are we making amends? Are we breaking our regret cycles? Are we seeking help from friends, family and mentors by disclosing our regrets?
The regret matrix is about self-compassion over self-pity. It is a real knowledge data base that keeps us from believing our own press statements. To remind us of our frailty and vulnerability that we share with everyone else. Leading us to greater authenticity. Regrets are the evidence that we care, that we aspire to better, and the existence of our enormous capacity to evolve.
Thanks for reading. John