Why is Regret So Powerful?

My husband and I recently made the excruciating decision to leave a church we helped grow and deeply loved. For months, we went back and forth nearly every night after the kids were in bed. What could we have done differently? Why didn’t we bring that up sooner? We seamlessly segued from processing to tormenting ourselves until we were utterly worn out. And in the end, we succeeded only in prolonging our suffering and deepening our regret.

Throughout the course of our lives, we all feel the occasional twinge of regret. Though regret shares many similarities with guilt and shame, the three are distinct. Guilt percolates to the surface when we have disappointed others or done something wrong (particularly if it has caused another person harm or pain).

As a 5 year old, I felt guilty for days after I lifted my pet goldfish out of his temporary home and laid him gently in his freshly cleaned tank–without first checking the water temperature. I cooked him.

When my mom returned to the kitchen and found the poor fish belly up, she asked me if I had put him in the boiling water. I lied—and then I felt both guilt and shame. Based on previous scoldings, I knew I was impatient and this solidified my perception that I was a bad girl. Where guilt generally stays on the surface, like poison ivy, shame penetrates us to the core, like blood cancer. Shame causes us to feel bad about who we are.

Regret tends to attach over more substantive experiences than the loss of a $2 pet. When I posted this topic on my Facebook wall and asked folks to share some of their regrets, their words were both poignant and heartbreaking; I regret not finishing college; I regret going to college and incurring a huge debt; I regret those years of drinking; I regret not choosing to follow Christ earlier in my life; I regret not pursuing music; I regret not getting a mammogram sooner; I regret leaving important things unsaid.

The key words connected to regret are, “I wish.” Regret leaves us wishing we had made different choices and longing for a redo. It hoodwinks us into believing that if we ruminate on something long enough, we will be able to create an alternate universe where everything comes out perfectly (a la Bill Murray in Groundhog Day). Meanwhile, as the sun continues to rise and set on the rest of the world, we remain immobilized and disintegrated by our magical thinking.

We all know that rewinding the tape or rewriting the scene only happens in Hollywood. We can’t have a redo. However, we don’t have to be mired in regret, losing valuable time and energy in the process. If we slow ourselves down and dialogue with God, regret, much like anger, can help us grow.

The apostle Paul wrote, “For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation … But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.” If we replace the word sorrow with regret, we can gain a deeper understanding of the redemptive purpose it can have in our lives.

Recurring or persistent regret can provide both the insight and the impetus to help us change. One of my friends wrote on the FB post, “I regret the energy I’ve wasted ruminating on failures and losses and injuries at the hands of others.” By paying attention to the repeated themes of her regret, she noticed that she could make different decision about how she interacted with failures, losses and injuries. She ultimately decided to forgive herself and others more quickly (even if they did not ask for forgiveness) and to not give regret so much power in her life.

In order to glean the gift embedded in regret, we need to recognize how eddying around and around both stalls us out and causes us to make reactive decisions.

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According to Michelle Van Loon, author of the soon to be released If Only: Letting Go of Regret, “Unprocessed regret creates false boundaries out of the woulda, coulda, shouldas that exist in our lives. For instance, I may regret not finishing college—and that regret may translate into not only the logical consequence for that action (“I will never be a brain surgeon.”) but the false boundary, or lie, that might mean settling for a career I hate and for which I am not suited.”

As a child, one of the most enjoyable summer activities I remember was for my friends and I to continuously run in the same direction inside of an above ground swimming pool. After five minutes of this concerted effort, we could create a powerful current. After we stopped running, the current would sweep us around the pool for quite some time. Thus is the nature of regret. But we have the capacity to slow and even stop that current via confession and forgiveness. Whenever regret is wedded to actual mistakes, confessing our sin (either of omission or commission) brings us a measure of freedom. Forgiving those who have hurt us as well as receiving forgiveness from God and others can truly allow us to stop swimming in regret.

Regarding the events of last year, my husband and I eventually made the unilateral decision to stop entertaining the woulda, coulda, shouldas and, having done all that we knew to do, simply wait—in faith—for God to redeem our mistakes and our losses. As many of you know, waiting in faith can stir up its own brew of emotions but thankfully, regret has been notably absent.

As we look back over 2013 and move forward into the new year, may we forgive, let go and ask God to use our regrets to help us grow.

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