To reflect, regret or forget?

Regret is something that many people live with on a daily basis with different levels of intensity. Others seem to have the ability to completely forget about the past and move on with life. On the surface, the ability to forget unpleasantness from the past may seem like a pathway to true inner harmony, however, can we truly learn from our experiences without experiencing some level of regret?

I have a close friend Sean, with whom I often ponder the complexities of life and relationships with others, more often than not over a beer or a red wine. We have known each other since primary school and have ended up as very different people. On a DISC profile, Sean would likely come out as a very high D (Dominance) with a fair whack of I (Influencing), while the MBTI Profile would have him as an ENTP - quite different from my CS (Cautious-Steady)/INTJ profiles. Despite the differences, our long-term friendship ensures we can engage in lively debate on such topics without either walking away with hurt feelings or grudges.

It was over an ale at our preferred pub one afternoon when, during the course of our conversation, Sean advised that he did not regret anything - FULL STOP. I was amazed, here is a man who works as in finance and was served with multiple law suits following the GFC. A man who less than 12 months early had experienced a marriage breakdown. A man who was in the process of winding up a 35 year-old sporting club both of us had invested a great deal of blood, sweat and tears into.

How could he have no regrets?

Sean explained that it was simple. Our conversation went something like this.

"If it is in the past I can't change it; every single action I have taken in life has led me to this moment right now. The present is the only moment that we will ever experience - so why worry about the past?"

"But without the lessons of the past, how do we ever develop ourselves?" was my counterargument. "We must learn from our failures so next time we are faced with a similar situation we can make a better informed decision."

"True, but there is no need to regret our failures as without them we would not have the opportunity to develop."

"If we don't regret them our failures, will we ever be motivated enough to reflect upon and therefore learn from them?"

As you may imagine, this line of conversation continued for quite some time without a clear agreement reached - indeed it is now a conversation we have continued on many occasions. And while I do not completely subscribe to the "no regret" theory, there are certain aspects that do ring true for me.

Ultimately, I believe that the ability to live with a complete absence of regret is only possible for some people. I am all too aware from the various personality and behavioural profiling tools I have used that I do have a tendency to brood, internalise negative thoughts and feelings, be quite self-critical and self-judgemental. Regret is something that occurs innately for me and something that I do not believe I will ever have the ability to remove completely. The challenge for myself is to ensure that I quickly move on from the regret stage to the reflect stage.

Regret-Reflect Process

This great article by Dr. Melanie Greenberg discusses the Psychology of Regret and certainly finds some value in the existence of regret and goes through some strategies for coping. While people like Sean may not feel the need, for people that do experience regret it becomes a matter of working through the following process:

No Regret Cycle

For Sean I believe it to be more acting first and then reviewing the action, regardless of the outcome, with no sense of guilt or blame. There may be a third act - prepare, which rounds of a far more condensed cycle than those that feel regret to start with.

Ultimately I'm not sure if we all have the power to live completely without regret; but it is the way that we manage these feelings that will ultimately allow us to move to bigger and better things.

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