Use Regrets to Grow

By July 11, 2022July 15th, 2022Uncategorized
Use regret to go forward

Use the power of regrets to grow.

Regret, like other emotions, can be a useful source of information to help one grow. It is defined as a feeling of sadness or disappointment over some past event. We can use regrets to grow because it can foster reflection on what not to do again and what one could do in the future. 

Don’t let regret keep you in the past.

The emotion of regret can foster a lot of “if only I had” thinking, which can leave one in a more helpless frame of mind. One’s level of differentiation influences this type of thinking. My level of differentiation, my current level of stress, and the significance of the past event can lead to a lot of unproductive story-making. It’s easy to get stuck with stories about “if only I had.” That’s all about the past. This subjective thinking takes me away from future possibilities since it focuses on the “what if I had” of the past.

I’m not perfect – I better have some regrets.

I’m not perfect (as my family will declare), so I should have some regrets. One way to think about regret is as an outcome of one trying to do the best they could, given what they knew at that time. Parenting, for example, can definitely be like this. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in stories about how they should have or could have known better. But they didn’t. Thus, they couldn’t have done better at that time. Or they didn’t believe they needed to at that time. As I learn new information now, in the present, I can recognize what I could now do better next time. Regret is about the past, which I can’t change. The learning it allows is about the present and the future and what I can do differently. 

Reframe regrets with a systems perspective.

Our emotions and our emotional systems influence us more than we recognize. This is an outcome of our level of differentiation of self (and of those around us) and the stressors we are experiencing. These factors influence our thinking to be less fact-based and more subjective (aka stories). This subjectivity allows one to ignore information they shouldn’t, putting too much value on the wrong information. And it fosters a tendency to take the option of least effort, often hoping for a quick solution. It’s as if these emotional forces influence us to function as if we deliberately wanted to do something we would regret. This is one aspect of a systems perspective. 

I wasn’t the only one involved.

Another aspect of a systems perspective is that, as a product of my emotional system, the functioning of the whole emotional system influences my behaviour. I think it’s important to remember that emotional forces involved in wanting attention and approval and meeting others’ expectations can lead someone to act in a less mature manner. Drinking and driving, for example. A person doesn’t decide, “I’m going to drink enough to make sure I have an accident.” What they might decide is “I won’t drink that much, and I’ll drive carefully” because they want attention, approval and to meet the expectations of others. And once they drink, their objectivity gets weaker. They may get the attention and approval they wanted, so they don’t want to stop. A more differentiated individual might decide “I’m driving, so no drinking” based on a conviction that is the best for them. They will accept rejection and disapproval from others to act on their conviction. And they are much less likely to have regrets.

Regret results from an emotional process. Look at the process.

Regret is the outcome of an emotional process. I did or didn’t do something that I now regret. So work to understand the process that led to the “something.” How are things different between then and now? What was the process that lead to doing what I now regret? How was my thinking influenced? Who was I sensitive to for getting attention, approval, and meeting their expectations? Where was I not objective or not realistic in my thinking? What assumptions did I make? How might I have been ignoring things I should have paid attention to? Reflecting calmly on the process leading to the outcome might even show that there was nothing one could have done differently given the situation and information at that time. But often, this reflection reveals important information. 

Use the power of regret to grow. Make your future different.

While it may be hard, an honest review of what happened (a good friend can help) can provide clues for how to prevent it from happening again. Reframe the regret from “if only I had” to “now I will.” For example, I have regrets about not being in better contact with my siblings and extended family. Looking at my family history from a systems perspective helped me understand how this came about (it didn’t just happen). I don’t blame myself, but I do hold myself accountable for making my future different. So I made the effort to have regular contact with family members. My past does not have to define my future, and my regrets can help me change my future. A goal-oriented future is a better place to put my energy. 

Don’t regret your level of differentiation; work on it!

If my level of differentiation is an indicator of my level of mature behaviour and objectivity in my thinking, then clearly, I should regret it not being greater! Alas, one’s level of basic level differentiation changes slowly. But I can work on improving my functional level of differentiation. I do this by getting more clear about how I want to “be.” Spending time to define my principles and developing conviction for them is part of the process. So is learning about emotional systems. Defining and executing self-directed goals is another part of the process. Being a more differentiated and responsible self is the goal. This is part of deciding and acting on the conviction that I am responsible for myself and my actions while I’m also interdependent with others and society.

Don’t regret regrets. 

I don’t believe in the concept of no regrets. The attending doctor didn’t check the “is perfect” box on my birth certificate. So I was born to have some regrets. What’s important is what I learn from my regrets and how I act on those lessons. This is the path to fewer regrets and reducing the negative effects of regrets. Working on my level of differentiation has been valuable to me on this journey. And my regret of not starting sooner motivates me to keep working. I don’t regret the effort!

Dave Galloway

Dan Pink’s book “The Power of Regret” inspired this post.

Learn more about Bowen Theory here.

Check out the Bowen Center YouTube channel here.