Minimalism isn’t just about letting go of excess physical possessions and the things we no longer use or enjoy. It is a whole-person release of everything that is not adding to but diminishing from our well-being. There are things that complicate our lives far more than the clutter we can see —things like the heavy burden of regret.
Regret is a powerful anchor that will hold us firmly in the past and prevent us from enjoying the present. It is an all-consuming stronghold that will interject its destructive presence into the happiest of moments, pulling a palpable cloud over a life that has otherwise managed to find a sense of peace.
If we have lived very long at all, there is a pretty good chance we have done at least a few things we wish we hadn’t. Some of the things we wish we could go back and undo are things that had only an internal effect on us —they didn’t really impact or hurt anyone else. Then there are the more complicated regrets that stem from seeds we have sown that planted pain and heartache in the life of others. Whatever the type of regret, walking its path is a hard row to hoe.
Eighteen years ago, I stood by the bedside of my dying father. Six years ago, I repeated the heart-wrenching scene in a different ICU room by my mother as her beautiful life slowly ebbed away. Both of my parents struggled much of their lives with a shadowing sense of regret over their own mistakes and failures. Watching both of them draw their final breath gave me a sense of clarity about the complete futility of walking through life burdened with regret. Here are five lessons I wish my dear parents had learned before their lives were over, and it was too late.
1. Accept the reality of the thing you regret.
The mistakes are real. They happened, and history cannot be rewritten. We can’t go back and pluck up seeds that have been sown, and what we sow will grow. Trying to recuse ourselves from responsibility will only put a band-aid on the wrongdoing and hide it from sight. Embracing reality and acknowledging the truth is the first step toward releasing regret.
2. Forgive yourself.
Show yourself the same kind of mercy you want others to extend when you have wronged them. Stop beating yourself up for doing something that you cannot undo. If you could go back to the moment before it happened, you would. Do the thing that you can do and open your heart to grace and the relief that comes from no longer carrying the burden of blame. Forgiving yourself won’t negate the thing you regret, but it will set you free from the power it holds over you.
3. Make amends.
If the thing you regret has wounded the heart of another, apologize without excuse and with sincerity of heart. Do what you reasonably can to mend fences and repair what your actions have broken, without crossing over into the trap of overcompensation. I say “reasonably” because there are those who will demand more of you than what is required, especially if their motives are stemming from hurt and feeling the need to make you “pay” for wrongdoing. This is where it can get tricky because regret can cloud what is reasonable. Your own inward sense of peace is a reliable guide to let you know when you have done enough.
4. Forget what is behind you.
Leave the past where it happened. Don’t keep talking about your failures and mistakes. The more you give voice to them, the larger they will appear. Release anything that reminds you of the regrettable action. I am deeply remorseful over a life decision my husband and I made that led our family into a church situation that adversely affected and wounded the spirit of our son. Is there anything harder to deal with than parenting regret? I have wished a thousand times that we had made a different choice, but what is done is done. Letting go of everything tangible that brings back memories of that season of life has been very helpful on our journey to healing. Reliving and being reminded of regrettable actions only perpetuates misery and gives license for the negative to stay alive in your life. Today is too precious to waste on “if onlys.”
5. Do the opposite of what you regret.
We can’t change the past, but what we do have control over is how we will live our lives going forward. Regret is a painful, albeit effective teacher. Learn from its lessons. Though we are all subject to the same human condition, and we will continue to make mistakes as long as we live, taking note of what regret has taught us can prevent the repeating of similar actions we will be sorry for in the future. Replace regretful contemplation with positive action. When wishing you had done things differently overwhelms your thinking, get proactive. Channel your thoughts into what is uplifting. Read something that inspires you. Do something nice for someone. Reach out with a benevolent hand. Be kind to everyone you meet. Smile. We are all in the ring with wishing we had done things differently in the past, but it is amazing how doing something positive, productive, and constructive will knock out the giant of regret.
At the end of our days, the only regret that will remain is that we ever allowed it to have a place in our lives at all.