If regret can sometimes seem like an animal on our backs, there are ways we can tame it. Here are five practical tips for dealing with regret when it threatens to get the best of us:
1. Don’t be afraid to look squarely at your regrets and get to know them a bit. What are they about? Are they mistakes you made? Paths that you wished you had taken but never took? Grievances against God? Grudges towards others who have wronged you? Sometimes to journal about these things helps. Sometimes to talk about them with a trusted friend or therapist is the answer, especially in those times when your regrets concern great loss or grief- over the death of a family member or the termination of a job, for instance. There is no shame in finding a companion who will help us get to know our regrets and the sometimes visceral emotions and impulses they elicit in us.
2. Welcome the lessons that may be there. Ask yourself what God might be teaching you. That interaction with your boss that made him so angry? Was there something you could have done differently? If so, what was it? How might you respond differently in the future? What do you need to do in order to make the change(s)? Equally important to ask is this: what was not yours to own? If your boss blew up at you over a seemingly small issue, you do not need to be responsible for his own problems with anger management. How might you clarify your boundaries in future interactions so that you don’t find yourself in similar, dysfunctional situations?
3. Sit with the feelings and sensations that come with the regret, so that you are then able to release these feelings. Repression won’t help us with our regrets. If the regret causes sadness or anger, we need to feel these things. In feeling them, and not being afraid to feel them, we are then able to release them. We actually cause worse problems for ourselves when we try to stuff the feelings or pretend that they are not there. I don’t know who originally said this, but a friend passed it on and I think it’s true: “We cause more problems for ourselves and others when we try to escape our pain rather than feel it.”
Many of us have picked up the wrong message that feelings of anger or sadness are “negative,” and that we need to get rid of them in some way- so that we are inclined to judge ourselves for feeling these things. If you can, let that judgment go. Feelings are never “wrong” or “right.” What we do with our feelings and how we learn from them are the important thing.
Sometimes the feelings of anger or sadness can be so strong that we feel out of control. In times like these, it can be helpful to let ourselves feel these emotions when we are in the presence of another trusted person.
4. Practice forgiveness. Almost all the time, our regrets contain at least one person whom we need to forgive. Often we are that person. Other times, we are holding someone else accountable- and often rightfully so. Jesus says we are to forgive “not just seven times but seventy seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Arguably, this quality of being forgiving towards oneself, others and God is the most distinctive trait of a follower of Christ.
But before we can forgive, we need to have the courage to name the wrong done to us and how we were hurt. If we are not able to do this in a safe way with the person who wronged us, we need to find an alternative way to acknowledge the wrong and process feelings around it, so that we can gradually move towards forgiveness. In other words, don’t forgive too soon- which is why forgiveness is step four and not step one!
5. Thank God for your regret and give it back to God in praise and thanksgiving. This is not to say that we should ask God for more things to regret. But give thanks to God for the things God is teaching you through the particularities of your regret. Which really is only your regret and nobody else’s. Nobody else harbors the same, exact regrets you do. They are yours only. As such, they are part of a unique story. The story of a one-of-a-kind person whom God loves and is redeeming.
When Jesus says his “yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30),”we can know that God does not ask us to carry the life-sucking noose of regret. We have an alternative. We can “put on” Christ. The same One who tells us to forgive seventy seven times knows all of our regrets. He knows all of the ways that we or others or circumstances, or all of the above, have robbed us from living into the abundant life He intended for us- and He doesn’t hold these things against us. Ever. We just have to claim His love for us. We do this by choosing Him rather than our regrets as the thing that will define who we are.