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A Holiday Gift for Yourself: Freedom from Regrets

By Vicki Rackner MD

How do you respond to the pain of regret, whether it’s your regret, your loved one’s regret or the regret of a colleague or client?  It’s a tough question, and I wanted to offer my best answer.  After all, I had the honor of delivering a keynote address to a national gathering of hospice workers, and deathbed confessions of regret are day-to-day events.

As I prepared for the talk I thought about my most painful regret.  I decided to skip my grandmother’s 90th birthday party.   I had just seen her a few months earlier, I argued to myself, and it would be hard to take the time off work.

On the morning of her birthday, my grandmother died from a massive heart attack.  At her funeral I felt the crushing weight of regret. What could I have been thinking?  What was more important than celebrating the joyous milestone of one of the most important people in my life?

Regrets hurt. They burn.  Just as you’re wired with nerves in your fingers to avoid being burned by hot objects, so too you’re wired with regrets to avoid being burned by life.  Just as you automatically pull your finger from a hot stove and avoid hot objects, regret helps you steer clear of the thoughts, feeling and actions that keep you from being your best and highest self.

I offer a hopeful message: you can heal the pain of regrets.

Regrets are longings to re-write history.  Forgiveness heals the pain of regrets.  You know you’re healed when you can look back and let the past be just as it was without feeling the urge to change it. Then you move forward and make better choices in the moment so you don’t arrive at tomorrow and look back with regrets about today.

The kinds of regrets you experience and your response to regrets are shaped by your temperament.  It includes the time zone you’re temperamentally drawn to: the past, the present or the future.  It’s also shaped by your expectations of yourself, your ideas about how other people should act, and your take on how the world works.

If you’re drawn to living in the past, the kind of regret you most likely experience is guilt.  Guilt is a pain that tells you there’s a mismatch between the person you’d like to be and the person you were in that moment.

Imagine the thoughts, feelings and actions of your ideal self as one supporting structure of the bridge and your real thoughts, feelings and actions on the other side of a river.  Guilt spans the distance.

You wouldn’t keep your finger on a hot stove; yet, the some people do the very thing with the burning of guilt. Guilt can become a grudge you hold against yourself.

You minimize guilt by making different choices in the moment, adjusting your image of the ideal you or both.  My guilt surrounding my grandmother’s death reminds me of the importance of taking time to celebrate; I now plan my schedule differently.  I also edit my embarrassing child-like beliefs about my own powers.  My presence at my grandmother’s party would not have kept my grandmother alive any more than a phobic person’s worries about crashes keep the plane in the air.  Healing guilt means forgiving yourself for being an imperfect human who made a one-time mistake.

If you’re drawn to the present moment, your regret most likely comes in the form of disappointment.  As you look at the bridge, imagine the events of the world outside of yourself as you expect it to be on one side of the river, and the world as you experience it on the other.  Disappointment spans the distance.   I had relatives who were disappointed about my grandmother’s death.  As irrational as it sounds, even adults believed my grandmother would live forever.

Disappointment and guilt are distant cousins; the difference is that guilt is an inside job.

Moving beyond disappointment involves adjusting your expectations about how the world works, or shifting your experience.  My grandmother didn’t live forever.  AND she lived much longer than the doctors predicted after her stroke.  Healing disappointment means forgiving another person or the world for life’s  imperfections.

If you’re drawn to the future, your regret may take the form of sadness about lost dreams.  Imagine a vase filled with flowers. I think of hope as a vase and the dreams as the bouquet.  It’s always sad when the fresh flowers fade; however there’s always something else you can put in the vase.  My grandmother would not be physically be there to meet my yet-unborn son; however, my grandmother’s stories  could be part of my son’s life.  Healing the regret of lost dreams means shifting your attention away from the flowers on their way to the compost bin; instead you welcome the new bouquet.

It sounds so simple. Here’s the catch.  It’s not easy.  Forgiveness, like garbage removeal, is not a one-time event.  The first time you do it, the load may be so heavy the bag breaks and you wind up cleaning up a new mess.  Over time—with experience—it gets easier.  You learn to take out the little loads so it doesn’t pile up.  And you can learn to generate less trash.

Caregiving is like a prism separating white light into a rainbow; the darkness of regrets is part of the spectrum.

Consider giving yourself a holiday gift.  Forgive yourself for one choice that brought you guilt.  Forgive one other person for one action that disappointed you.  Forgive the world for the bolt of unfairness that stood between you and an old dream.

Then celebrate the richness that you enjoy today.

Happy holidays!

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