May 12, 2008
How To Stop Regretting The Past And Start Building Your Future
If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I’d like to do …” – Jim Croce
This has certainly been a challenging and thought-provoking action-provoking series of posts at Rock Your Day. I hope all my regular readers are feeling a little more balanced than this time last week. But the ride’s not over yet – today we’re going to talk about how to take your regrets - those things that have been gnawing at your conscience and keeping you up at night – and turn them around so you can pack more of what matters into your life before it’s too late.
Why We Avoid Thinking About Our Regrets (And Why We Shouldn’t)
As human beings we tend to avoid pain whenever we can, and thinking back to missed opportunities and bad choices is a pain most of us simply don’t want to deal with. When phrases like “too late,” “if only,” and “the best years of my life,” start rattling around in our minds, we tend to try to find something else to think about (or worse – we don’t – and we end up locked into a period of depression).
And that’s natural. When we regret things, we acknowledge that we’ve screwed up, that we’ve either damaged something beyond repair or missed an opportunity that will never come again. Maybe it’s a career choice. Maybe it’s our approach to being there for other people in our lives. Maybe it’s a lifestyle choice that leaves us tipping the scales or tempting fate. Whatever it is, it hurts, and it hurts a lot.
And so we feel like crap, and many times we try to find something to numb the agony, like food, or TV, or web surfing – or tragically, by hating ourselves for our choices and feeling paralyzed by the pain. But coping by distracting yourself isn’t coping at all – and in fact will only open the door to more choices that will give birth to more regret.
But we shouldn’t let regret weigh us down and sap our energy, because regret isn’t supposed to do that at all. Regret isn’t supposed to be a psychological punishment or purgatory for our past transgressions – it’s supposed to be an indicator that something about your habits and behaviors must change, right now, damn it. Instead of feeling that our brain is beating us up and sending us on another guilt trip, we need to realize that it’s actually trying to help us by slapping us hard in the face and shouting “snap out of it and get your a$$ in gear!” And that’s a message that’s just too important to ignore.
How To Turn Paralyzing Regret Into Energizing Action
There’s no magic formula or easy way out of regret – the pain and emotion is very real and very powerful. But you can chip away at it, bit by bit, by shifting how you react to it and how you talk to yourself when you are experiencing it. Here’s a simple 7-step process that will get you on the road to transforming paralysis into power.
- First, prepare yourself by deciding that you will now look at regret as the voice of an inner friend of sorts rather than an adversary, as someone who is trying to make you realize that you can do more and have more of what truly matters in your life. Tell yourself it’s all right to hear the voice of regret, because it’s really there to help you (although it’s help of the ‘toughlove’ variety).
- Then, take control by confronting your regrets head on. Don’t wait for something to trigger a memory, catch you by surprise and depress you when you guard is down. Take the initiative and ask yourself “What do I regret about my personal choices and behaviors over the last 5/10/etc. years?” And then listen. Really listen.
- Next, focus on one of those regrets and ask it/(yourself), “Ok, I’m listening. What are you trying to tell me about how I should live my life differently?” Then listen. Take your time. Discover what it is you know you should be doing and what behaviors you need to change (or attitudes you need to move past) in order to get more of what matters in the future. Get clear on what needs to change.
- Then, ask yourself “What will I lose if I don’t do this?” Look ahead another 5/10/etc. years and see what will happen if your present behaviors continue. Taste the flavor of potential regret and let the reality of the situation sink in: this will be your future if you do not change.
- Next, decide that you will not settle for that fate and that you will take control, no matter how hard you have to push yourself. Grit your teeth. Put your foot down. Draw the line. Get frustrated enough that finally, damn it, you’re going to make the necessary changes, even if it hurts
- Now, come up with a simple sentence you can repeat in your head to remind yourself what your new standard is (For example: “I refuse to let work force my family time onto the back burner. I put family first, and schedule work in around it.”). Since you have to break an existing habit, you need something consistent you can repeat over and over again so that you can snap yourself out of it when you’re lapsing into your old behaviors. This is the most critical step; if you have trouble breaking a habit, 99% of the time it’s because you’re not doing this step, and you let the urgencies of life sidetrack you.
- Finally, ask yourself “What do I need to focus on to make this change easy?” This will be a change in perspective for most people because we believe that habit change is hard. It’s not necessarily hard (read: difficult) as much as it is hard work (read: putting in effort every day). But there are things you can do to make it easier. Enlist someone’s help. Get a coach or a friend to hold you accountable. Find ways to make the process less painful (too much to go into now, but I may write on this later). The point is, if you ask yourself “How do I make this easy?”, and you keep asking yourself that, you’ll come up with answers you can use.
The Big Question: What Should You Change?
Your regrets are little messengers telling you something. They’re putting pressure on you to do something different now, before it’s too late. What are your regrets telling you? As you go into your week, mull over these areas where we tend to have the most regrets:
- Family – What did you miss out on growing up? Are you leaving the same legacy for your family, or pushing for something greater?
- Career – Is the cost of what you’re pursuing worth it? Are your fears holding you back from taking bold steps? Are you going through the motions or training yourself for a better tomorrow?
- Self-image – are you beating yourself up for something that happened a long time ago? Are you holding on to limiting beliefs that keep you from pursuing opportunities to show what you secretly believe you’re really made of?
I’m sure there could be a hundred bullet points here, but the important thing is to listen to that internal voice that’s nagging at you to change something now, befor it’s too late. Don’t let regret for past action/inaction hold you back from doing something today that will make life better for you and those who you care about. You can’t store time in a bottle. But what you can do is drink today deeply, down to the last drop. Don’t waste a sip.