Be thankful for regret

No one likes the feeling of regret, whether as large as deathbed regrets or as small as the “Reply All” regret that Kathryn Schulz discusses in this TED Talk:

Kathryn Schulz:

“[I]f we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.

The lesson that I ultimately learned from my tattoo and that I want to leave you with today is this: We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.”

One of my areas of non-fiction interest and writing is Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, a theory of personality development that tells us, among other things, that we can’t grow if we don’t fall apart once in awhile, and that what we think of as negative emotions are invaluable in the journey of personal growth. Of course, falling apart isn’t the only necessary ingredient. We also need to be aware of our emotions rather than ignoring or masking them, especially the difficult ones, and use them as clues to what aspects of our lives we want and need to change. Regret is, after all, a mature emotion. Very young children can feel sad and angry and even put upon, but only with time and self-reflection can they feel true regret.

The problem is that, rather than use regret to our advantage, we are often tempted to identify with it or wallow or, as Kathryn Schulz tells us, hate ourselves for feeling regret at all.

Writers, especially, often allow regret for past actions (or, more often, past inaction) to overwhelm them, to take the place of moving forward. Regret for not writing—rather than writing—becomes an activity in itself.

Instead, if we can distance ourselves from our regret a bit and look at it squarely, questioning it for what it can teach us, regret can help us to live in such a way today so as to minimize feelings of regret tomorrow.

That’s really all we need to do.

What aspects of your Writing Life do you regret, and how can you use that regret and move past it to shape the Writing Life you want now?

7 thoughts on “Be thankful for regret

  1. This is a terrific post, and very helpful. The fantasy of happiness often overlooks the need to experience the so-called negative emotions even to know when you are happy. I have many regrets, and I struggle to forgive myself for them. My biggest regret in relation to writing is that I dropped it during my twenties and thirties after I had left school and only began again in the face of traumatic experience. But I have not too many writerly regrets since then. My other regret is that I did not develop into a poet.

    • Elisabeth, one of the wonderful aspects of being a writer is that it’s not a field with prodigies. We really do have the chance to get better with age, so having picked it up again at midlife can be exactly the right timing. Thanks very much for this comment. It’s helpful for us all to know that we aren’t alone in our regrets.

  2. One of the things I most love about moving into the maturity of middle years is the embracing and acceptance of the value of all experience and emotion, for good and for bad. Regret is relegated to a minor and more manageable part of life.

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