Emily Dickinson wrote, "Remorse is cureless, the disease not even God can heal." 'Remorse' arises as a sorrow for past decisions that you've made, while 'regret' serves as a broader, more useful term, describing a wish that you'd made other choices in the past: choices either to avoid doing something that you've done or to do something that you avoided. At their root, the two emotions are practically synonymous. They're both cases of feeling sad because of choices that you made once upon a time.
As the disappointments that characterize the midlife transition slowly strip away the feelings of achievement, success and personal adequacy that used to keep you going as a mere adult, oftentimes what remains — like grounds stuck to the bottom of a drained coffee mug — are all your regrets: "I wish I hadn't done that;" "I wish I hadn't said that to him/her;" "If only I'd listened to him/her;" "I shouldn't have passed up that opportunity." Regret, exposed by present disappointments, leaves you pining over a lifetime of unfortunate detours and roads not taken. No wonder the midlife transition feels so depressing!
Good news! There exists a road out of regret. It begins, as every significant life-altering decision must, with a change of heart and mind. To shift from living a life of sadness, guilt, self-recrimination, and regret, you don't have to do anything. All you need to do is to change your mind. I say this very often, but it needs repeating even more often. People like you and me want to make living life harder than it needs to be. Somehow, deep down inside, we carry with us the core belief that, if something isn't gut-wrenchingly hard, it can't be effective. Yet, how many times in the past have you agonized over something that later turned out to be a very simple miscalculation or misunderstanding? It happens all the time. Shockingly, the difference between living a life of fullness and satisfaction and living a life of regret lies entirely in the decision that you make — here and now — about how you're going to think about it.
Many years ago, a mentor of mine gave me a phrase that I've found to be one of the most powerful principles (a mantra, in fact) that you can use to disarm the negativity that almost continually underlies and undermines your decision-making process. The statement itself is simple but very controversial, so I'll need to explain both how to use it and how not to use it. Here's your mantra for today (or any day that you find your life tinged with regret): The decision that you made, at the time you made it, was the right decision for you.
Here's some background that'll help you appreciate how this simple but profound statement can work for you. When you review your past, you're going to find some decisions that turned out badly for you or for others. You're going to be able to see that there were different, even better, decisions that you could have made at the time that might have worked out better for you or for all involved. There's nothing quite like a disastrous result to convince you that another choice might have served you better. When you look back at these painful moments, you'll naturally experience sad feelings around them.
These feelings come in two flavors: guilt and shame. They're very different emotions: guilt arises from a realization that you could have done better; shame suggests that you could have been better. Guilt speaks to your decisions and actions, shame speaks to your being as a person. Guilt is an absolutely necessary emotion that assists you in learning not to make the same mistakes over again. A sociopath is someone who is incapable of feeling true guilt, and therefore never learns 'right from wrong'. Shame, on the other hand, raises doubts about your value and adequacy as a person. Shame, rather than providing you with assistance in moving forward in a more positive direction, causes debilitating doubt. Shame brings with it the terror of making a mistake, and the crisis of self-confidence that paralyzes your entire decision-making process.
Feelings of guilt should lift once your shortcoming has been acknowledged and you have taken steps to correct the situation and you have made an effort to make amends for whatever damage you may have caused. This is the experience of redemption. Shame, on the other hand, illustrates the experience that Emily Dickinson spoke about. Believing that you have a fundamental flaw in your very being not only resists a cure, it also deepens with every mistake you make. Acknowledging that whatever decision you made at the time you made it was the right one for you must not excuse you from guilt: regardless of your good intentions, you still made an error in judgment, culpable or not. This acknowledgment can, however, free you from shame — and the pervasive sense of regret that flows from it.
Here's the point in a nutshell: you have 20/20 hindsight. When you attempt to pass judgment on the decisions you made in the past with the knowledge and experience you have in the present, you're doing yourself a huge injustice. You can't know what you don't know until you know it. The pain you experience around guilt represents a good, positive, forward-moving impetus. Remember, please, that pain only means punishment for children who don't know any better. Once you've reached the midlife transition, you're ready to accept the fact that pain (physical or emotional) only represents the universe trying to get your attention. There's no real shame in pain. For a mature adult, you can learn to embrace the pain and walk through the fear into something more wonderfully positive. You only learn, after all, by your mistakes.
Once again: when you pass judgment on the decisions that you made in the past using the knowledge and experience you have in the present, you're shaming yourself completely unjustly. When that happens, it's time to remind yourself: The decision that you made, at the time that you made it, was the right decision for you. Breathe it out. Let it go. So long as you've learned from the mistakes of the past, you have no need for regret. Every decision you've made, every experience (both positive and negative) that you've had along the way, has taken you to where you are today and made you the person you are today. There is no shame in that. In fact, as you transition through midlife, you're going to have the opportunity to feel — and to express — gratitude for every mistake, every wrong turn, every 'sin' that you've experienced in your life. After all, every decision of your life (the unacceptable ones as well as the acceptable ones) has brought you to this moment. And that, dear friend, is a very good thing!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC grew up in an entrepreneurial family and has been an entrepreneur for most of his life. He is the author of The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All. Les is a certified Franklin Covey coach and a certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Effectiveness coach. He has Masters Degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Ottawa. His experience includes ten years in the ministry and over fifteen years in corporate management. His expertise as an innovator and change strategist has enabled him to develop a program that allows his clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives.