For as long as I can remember, I have loathed this saying. It is something that millennials, in particular, seem very fond of using as their mantra. It is, in a way, an excuse. I know I did something extraordinarily ignorant, but no regrets! I learned something!
As true as it may be that negative consequences due to poor choices can act as the teachers of life, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that not regretting our behavior is part of the learning experience. In fact, I believe that regret is actually life’s greatest, most impactful teacher.
We all make poor decisions at times. We do things that are detrimental to our relationships, our bodies, our very livelihoods. These decisions often lead to negative consequences, such as losing a relationship we had held in a place of value, struggling to correct distorted body image, losing jobs or having career setbacks. For someone struggling with the aftermath of a poor choice, claiming a lack of regret feels a lot like an excuse to me.
They are using the ‘no regret’ mantra to excuse the fact that they failed themselves (or others) in some way. They failed to commit to a healthy lifestyle, but they don’t regret the setback because ‘I wanted it at the time’. They failed to protect their heart and value themselves in a relationship because ‘I wanted that at the time’. They failed to advance themselves intellectually or financially because ‘I wanted to do this instead at the time’.
Regret isn’t a monster lurking in the shadows of our past. Regret is the small voice that says ‘I don’t want to feel that way again’. Regret is a catalyst for positive change. Regret is me saying ‘wow, that was silly. Next time I’ll do things differently’. Regret is being able to recognize a shortcoming and not making an excuse, but rather a conscious decision to be a better person afterward.
Regret is just like anything else: It can be a seed that, when nurtured, can grow into a flower. Or it can be a weed that, left unchecked, can choke out a blossom. You get to choose. Ignoring that it’s there doesn’t make it go away when you’re laying in bed at night, unable to sleep, not admitting to anyone (maybe not even yourself) that you were ever wrong.
“No regrets” is a scapegoat for accountability. When we choose to shrug our shoulders at our errors, we are telling ourselves that we don’t have to be accountable anymore. We’re human. We make mistakes. Oh well. Indifference. Apathy. A vicious cycle of never getting better.
There is also a very large difference between regretting something and mentally berating yourself to the point of self-abuse. I can regret eating an entire cake and use that feeling to ensure that I never do that again. Or, I can sit there and berate myself and wallow in a place of self-loathing because ‘you are so disgusting, you might as well just give up trying to eat well at all’.
Regret leads to me making a better decision next time.
Self-loathing leads to me giving up my efforts of fitness altogether.
When I was coming out of the haze of an abusive relationship, some well-meaning person advised me not to regret the seven years I had wasted on a significant other. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that I didn’t choose to find myself in an abusive situation. But I am responsible for making a series of poor decisions that kept me there. The regret I feel about the situation had propelled me toward a healthier relationship with myself.
I would not be the person I am, nor would I have the relationships I am currently nurturing, were it not for regretting the way I had behaved in the past.
Let me just encourage you to consider regret a little differently today. There are people who will make you feel like having regret makes you ‘less’. They will try to discourage regret more readily than they will encourage you to recommit yourself to goals. These people mean well. They aren’t enemies. But if you want to achieve something with your life, you must hold yourself accountable to your mistakes and move forward with a healthy dose of the kind of regret that ensures you won’t make the same bad choice again.
Regret is a catalyst of positive change. It is one of the many things that can catapult us toward making firmer commitments to the kind of work ethic that will end in results. Whatever your goals, commit. Dedicate. And, for the love of yourself, regret every single bad decision that has set you back in achieving it.
Now, get out there and smash it.