Regret is a strange word. Except that it's not really. My dictionary app defines it as "a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done," and that's entirely unambiguous to me. What's strange about regret is the way that we talk about it.
First of all, we often talk about it only in the "missed opportunity" sense. And that to me is a little too restrictive. It doesn't account for the full spectrum of feelings that I think of and experience as regret. A regret to me is any residual "feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done" that we can't seem to stop trying to fix in post. And maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but as I'll get into below, the regrets I’m most concerned with are not ones I’d classify as missed opportunities, although they do have elements of that.
We also talk about it as though it's a static thing that we choose to experience or not: “I regret this and this but not that.” Or “I have only one regret.” Or “I have no regrets.” We hear enough other people talk about it this way, and I think at some point we just start to think that that's how it works: We get to look back at our lives and choose what we feel a lingering sadness, repentance, or disappointment about, or what we feel anything about for that matter. And if we decide that we want to be (or at least present ourselves to be) the kind of person who has no regrets, we can always just say that we learned something from whatever it was that we otherwise would have regretted, and so no regrets. And maybe we did learn something. But do lessons necessarily nullify feelings?
I don't know about you, but that's not how it works for me. I have many regrets. And most of them are connected to things I've learned from. Of those, many are tied to things I think I would have figured out anyway, sans regrettable occurrence. And some stem from utterly uninstructive events. Among all of these, nothing is static. My feelings of regret fade in and out and come from out of nowhere. They are not quite living–breathing things, but they are byproducts of a living–breathing thing (hello!), mixing it up with all of my other non-regrettable byproducts. I can craft all the blemish-reducing stories about them that I'd like. But given enough time, they're going to sneak off and get drunk on their own and each other's energies, and in their stupors, they're probably going to fire off all kinds of confusing thoughts and feelings for me to deal with.
We do have some choice in the matter, though. We can choose not to dwell on our regrets, not to mistake them for empirical evidence of who we are, or even of what actually happened in that semi-phantom part of the past that we've held onto and turned into a (sometimes drunken) energy. But not dwelling on regrets is different than not having regrets, not feeling their occasional pangs. It's more like living with regret, which I think we all have to do to some extent. Is the option not to ever really on the table? Is it possible to live in a way that bypasses the events that create certain feelings? Is it possible to completely neuter the feelings we already have? I don't know that it is.
We can't edit or undo the past. We begin carrying its remnants with us way before we know we’re doing it. But we needn't spend our days burdened by all the edits we can't make. That said, I do think it would be a loss to avoid aiming our attention at those sh*tty feelings that regret and its ilk push on us every now and then. I think it would be a deceit to avoid going toward those feelings, seeing where they lead, seeing where they begin, seeing why they keep coming back, seeing what other parts of our lives they snuck into while we weren't looking.
Of course, just because something's a loss and a deceit doesn't mean we won't still do it. It's pretty clear to me that we go to great lengths to micro-justify our past actions, to brighten and bolster who we think we are and were. And we often do this on the sly, hidden even/mostly from ourselves. We are attracted to the things in the present that bring even the slightest support to the lingering stuff (regrets, doubts, etc.) of our past. Those slight supports work like a balm on the lingering stuff. And since we often don't even know we're looking for them, we're unlikely to admit defeat when we don't find them. We're far more likely to just keep looking, which is a pretty awful way to take the world in, and an equally awful way to comport ourselves in life. In no small part because if we need to distort the past and present a little to make ourselves look and feel better, then we will probably do it. We're good at it. Because being good at it means we get to look and feel slightly better about ourselves, at least for a minute. We don't need to learn that. It's something we do automatically. Being bad at it, on the other hand, requires learning to be aware of something that we don't want to be aware of, because being too aware of it would make us feel bad. And feeling bad feels bad.
But being aware of a bad feeling can also produce good results. That is how we can actually learn from our regrets. Again, the lesson doesn't nullify the regret, at least not for me, but it informs me that I should course-correct and behave in a way that I think is a better, good-feeling-producing way. And that's great. Except that it's not always. Not necessarily. We are, after all, still reacting to our primal feelings, still trying to make the good ones and avoid the bad ones. And since we really, really, really don't want to feel the bad ones, including the bad ones we found via our learned awareness, we introduce the risk of overcorrection. Worse, we might accept overcorrection as a viable alternative to getting anywhere near that past behavior that we now know (a) was wrong and (b) made us feel bad. Worse still, being aware of our overcorrections might also make us feel bad. And worse still, our overcorrections, if nothing else, at least make it very clear that we're on the good team; we're one of the good people. And we all want to be one of the good people. Unfortunately, it's not always enough to be one of the good people. Because we also have a strong and nagging desire to be seen as one of the good people. And in the context of that desire, overcorrection becomes that much more viable and acceptable, and we risk becoming worse versions of ourselves.
How do I know this? I don't. It's just what seems most correct to me right now, as I'm writing this. Here's how I got here.
I've been watching my regrets (and the arising of various other bad feelings) extra closely for a few months or so now. Why? Because I've been preoccupied with them. Like a waking-up-to-different-regrets-each-morning-and-spending-large-chunks-of-my-days-trying-to-figure-out-why kind of preoccupied. Like an unhealthy-and-obsessive-and-probably-unresolved-issues kind of preoccupied. And guess what? I think I'm getting somewhere. Does wherever that place is apply to you and your regrets? I honestly don't know. I hope the place I started from is worse than wherever you’re at now. But you'll have to assess that for yourself.
The most useful thing I've found so far is that a lot of my regrets—not all of them, but probably a majority of them—are related to how I think others may have perceived me as a result of something I said or wrote or did. Namely, the concern is that they left our interaction with an unfavorable view of me. It's not (always) that I regret what I said or wrote or did. The feelings that come up seem to begin from a sense that I misspoke or misrepresented myself somehow, or that I would probably speak or represent myself differently now if given the chance, or that I just wasn't clear or careful enough with my words, and that I handed this careless and mistaken piece of myself to someone, and they took it and judged it and then judged me as that, and only that, and that that's just who I am to them now, that broken off piece of me that, yes, is a piece of me, or is a snapshot of a piece of me, or a snapshot of a piece of the ongoing verb of me, but it's not the only piece, and it may not even have been a lasting piece.
And guess what else? This makes me feel bad about myself. It puts on full display my insufferable ability to both overthink everything and, upon exhausting myself of that, to act impulsively just to make the overthinking stop. And this starts to make a life of silence and isolation (both overcorrections, obviously) look good. And do you know what goes well with silence and isolation? More writing! And if I'm not careful, I might unwittingly start to think and write from a desire to improve my opinions about myself via manipulating your opinions about me. And that would be utter bullsh*t. Because, yes, I want to feel good. And yes, I want to do and be good. And yes, I want to be liked, even though I don't want to want to be liked. But I also want to be truthful, open, sincere, rational, self-aware. I also think it's our duty to elevate our desire to be attentive and honest and morally minded and constructive and all that good stuff above our desire to just appear to be that way, or to just appear to be any way.
Am I doing that right now? My assessment is that I am. My evidence for this is in much of what I've just written. I don't want you to know that I think or feel these things, that I care what you think, that I allow it to affect me, sometimes a great deal. But a bigger part of me is willing to set itself alight to bring a glint of transparency to what I believe is our shared predicament.
Do I have a perfect record of doing this? I absolutely do not. I am human. And all I can do is keep trying to do it better now, keep trying to maintain at least a 60–40 split—the 60% being all the attentive/honest/morally minded/constructive/all that good stuff stuff I touched on above, and the 40% being all the dumb feeling-driven stuff of just wanting you to know who I am and what I think, and what I want you to think about who I am and what I think, and really, just wanting you to know that I'm anything at all, that I'm still here.
The former might actually help to move a corner of the world an inch or two in a better direction. The latter, at its best, is just self-expression. And self-expression can be big, assuming you have something big to say. But it can also be just mere self-expression, an affirmation of an identity, a declaration of allegiance to "the good team," a status symbol, a virtue signal. And that's all just the noise of delusion. That's all just tweeting "I AM ME" and expecting some law or opinion or culture to change. It's a trap. And it's in us all. And one way not to fall into it, I think, is to try to keep our better angels and motivations at or above that 60% mark. It at least gives us pause. And considering the current global surplus of noise, a well-placed pause is not nothing. A good pause makes music. A good pause makes comedy. A good pause is the difference between greatness and obscurity. And I'm not saying don't ever make noise. I'm just saying, if you want to make your noise better, add some good pauses.