Who's Sorry Now? 6 Steps to Regret-Proof Your Life
The anger component of regret is every bit as important and useful as your sadness. Anger is a bear, but if you pay attention, you'll hear it roaring useful instructions about how you should steer your future. Don't fear it, run from it, tranquilize it, try to kill it. Just leave the kids with a sitter, team up with a sympathetic friend, spouse, therapist, or journal, and let your angry animal self bellow its messages. There will be a lot of meaningless sound and fury, but there will also be information about exactly what needs to change in your present and future so that you'll stop suffering from old regrets and create new ones. Basically, your anger will roar out this next instruction...
6. Learn to Lean Loveward
When I saw A Chorus Line, I wondered if it's literally true that "I can't regret what I did for love." So I did a little thought experiment. I recalled all my significant regrets, and sure enough, I found that none of them followed a choice based purely on love. All were the consequence of fear-based decisions. In the cases where my motivations were a mix of love and fear, it was always the fear-based component that left me fretful and regretful.
For example, I'll be up most of tonight, having spent the daylight hours eating pudding in reaction to writer's block, which is a species of fear. I predict that tomorrow I'll regret this—I've spent many, many sleepless nights fearing this or that, and no good ever came of it. But I've also lost a lot of sleep for love. I've stayed up communing with friends, rocking sick babies, avoiding celibacy. And I really can't regret any choice that brought me one moment of love. Do your own thought experiment, and I suspect you'll come to similar conclusions. (Let's face it, a song that catchy just can't be all wrong.)
So the ultimate lesson of regret, the one that will help guide you into a rich and satisfying future, is this: Every time life brings you to a crossroads, from the tiniest to the most immense, go toward love, not away from fear. Think of every choice in terms of "What would thrill and delight me?" rather than "What will keep my fear—or the events, people, and things I fear—at bay?"
Sometimes the choice will be utterly clear. Love steers you forward, and no fear arises. But on many occasions, things will seem trickier. The path toward what you love may be fraught with uneasiness, anxiety, outright terror. The pound dog will tug at your heart, but worry about upkeep will push away the first sparks of love and leave you without a four-footed friend. You'll long for success but dread the risks necessary to earn it. Your impulse to champion the oppressed might compete with panic for your own sorry hide.
That's when you can call on regret—not as a burden that you still have to bear but as a motivator that can forcefully remind you not to make choices that will feel awful in retrospect. If you've grieved your losses, reclaimed your dreams, and articulated your anger, regret will have made you the right kind of tough-and-tender: dauntless of spirit, soft of heart, convinced by experience that nothing based on fear—but everything based on love—is worth doing. Living this way doesn't guarantee an easy life; in fact, it will probably take you on a wondrously wild ride. But I promise, you won't regret it.
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