I wonder how many of us live our lives going over our regrets on a daily basis. I know I used to spend a great deal of energy ruminating over what I “should” have done. It included ; could I have been a better parent, why did I get divorced, might I have been a more devoted daughter, and what if I had been less invested in my career, would that have made everyone around me happier? I have also self flagellated over gaining weight, not flossing every night, having hair that’s too curly and ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Regrets have a place in our lives, if they wake us up to attempting not to repeat the past or if they give us new insights and possibilities. But the majority of us seem to savor our regrets in some dark and mysterious way as if feeling the guilt over and over will somehow free us from them or the pain they inflict upon us. There is research that says “swimming to the island of regrets” can help instill a healthy conscience but make sure you can swim back. After all never feeling any regret for untowardly behavior is the basis for being a sociopath or psychopath. One of the biggest problems individuals have that continually fret and share their regrets is that there are always individuals who have memories like elephants who simply won’t let you forget even if you want to. My mother loved to reiterate over and over her mantra “Didn’t I tell you”! She had the rhetoric down pat and could have given it as a graduation speech at Harvard. There are others with a similar mindset that I have shared the errors of my ways, who are masters at reminding me of them over and over. In fact if you allow them to hold you hostage, you’ll be their prisoner for life. They like my mother have taught me to practice discernment as to what I say and to whom about my regrets. I have also learned to forgive myself for being human . Scott Peck, the author of “The Road Less Traveled” made himself famous with the first line in his book, “Life is difficult”. Yes it is and often we set out to do all the right things for ourselves and those we love, but “stuff happens” and we make decisions based on immaturity, and unfulfilled needs. One thing is for sure, our time on this planet is very short, and so we must try to focus on moving forward in the best possible way by learning from our pasts so that our days are filled with the joy of what we did right rather than what we didn’t do.
The last several years have seen a proliferation of books on how to think positive, and be happy so that you can become successful and fulfilled. The only problem is that more often than not our brains prefer to choose negative thoughts. John Milton said that “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He certainly knew what he was talking about. On any given day we average about 60,000 thoughts. Many of them are focused on what’s wrong, or what could go wrong. This made a lot of sense thousands of years ago when there was a huge possibility that your village could be obliterated by your enemies or that you might be attacked by a behemoth while taking a morning walk. Unfortunately the brain has taken it’s time catching up with modern-day society. We are still struggling to rid ourselves of a lot of our fears, which often come from negative thoughts, even though we are living in modern times. Researchers have proven that our brain patterns are defined in part by how we think. Optimists take credit for their successes and see bad events as flukes. Pessimists, on the other hand, blame themselves for anything that happens and often discount success. Dr. Martin Seligman has dubbed the dialogue of pessimism and optimism as explanatory style. He points to the fact that pessimists use the three P’s to explain themselves: personalization (“It always happens to me!”), pervasiveness (“it happens to me every day in every way!”), and permanence (“It will never end!)”. This practically guarantees a life that contains a feeling of hopelessness and suffering. It also contributes to a sense of inner worthlessness and a lack of self-control. The more we think we are a certain way, the more we become that way. Learning to change our inner dialogue can be very difficult for those whose biology predisposes them to depression and or anxiety. So learning to parrot positive statements may prove to be an act of futility for them. They may need a combination of medications and a cognitive behavioral therapist. For those of us who have simply become habituated to thinking that the universe is not a friendly place, I suggest spending some time everyday thinking about what you feel good about. There is always something we can extrapolate from our day-to-day that can help to buffer our fears. If you can engage in this practice you will find yourself more able to handle difficult situations and there’s a good possibility you may even live longer.