“It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. Hague, M: The Midnight Library, p. 273
Matt Haig’s latest novel, The Midnight Library is hugely popular, and one can see why. There is not a person on this earth who hasn’t felt the sting of ‘if only’, and so I thought it might be useful to explore the feeling of ‘regret’ here.
Regret has many different tones. For some it may be a momentary thought which passes quickly, but for others it can be more like a haunting, where the ghosts of ‘what could have been’ visit incessantly, appearing at random moments to weigh themselves down upon a person’s heart until they cannot function normally. What could have been a normal day, with the hauntings of regret wrapped up with guilt can then turn into a day of wading through heavy treacle.
And so one can see already that there is a distinction between what we could call healthy regret and unhealthy regret.
Without the support of another person, unhealthy regret can feel like a circular thought that never reaches a resting place. The record on repeat plays ‘if only’ over and over.
With the support of another person, (for instance, in counselling), we can visit the original place where regret was born. What I find time and time again with clients I work with is that, if we visit that difficult place, in time, a person’s relationship with their regret can shift and change. This is because there is an intricacy to that moment, to that tipping point where things did or didn’t happen. The mind naturally puts the past into some kind of narrative order, and it is also only natural that some of those stories will end with the sentence ‘if only’. With counselling, what can happen is a person’s relationship with that story can change due to a softening in understanding of why something originally did or didn’t happen. Sometimes forgiveness or acceptance changes the story. Sometimes seeing what happened or didn’t happen ends up being seen in a different light and so the sentence ‘if only’ starts to shift and change instead to ‘if only, and I care for myself in all of that…” or ‘if only, and I forgive…’.
The purpose of regret
“Sincere regret may, in fact, be a faculty for paying attention to the future, for sensing a new tide where we missed a previous one.”
David Whyte: 2019, 131
Regret is the feeling we have when we look back on something and wish we had done it differently. It is born out of the double-edged sword of the imagination which can look back and think up all the ways things ‘could have been’. The brain as a survival tool is bound to look back on how things can be done in a better way because its job is to learn how to do things better – healthy regret can lead to a person deciding to act differently in the future. Sometimes though, a person can become stuck, perhaps due to those regretful thoughts turning in on themselves and slowly morphing into a shroud of guilt which holds up a stick beating the drum that says ‘it’s your fault’, ‘you were so stupid’ etc. This is where regret starts to hide and turn into shame. In this kind of situation, regret can remain hidden for years. How does one come out of that hiding place? Self-forgiveness is hard – but it can be even harder if you’re in an echo chamber of ruminous thoughts. Counselling provides a unique environment like no other, where memories and thoughts can be hung out on a washing line, and a different kind of wind can blow through it all. Shame cannot survive in company, especially if that company is wholly accepting and supportive.
Regret has a voice…
Regret has a very distinctive voice. If it keeps appearing in one’s life, then it is insistent for a reason. Counselling can help you to listen to that part which is trying to say something about what did or didn’t happen. There is often a stuckness there, and through listening to the voice of regret one may also hear sadness, resignation, pain or many other things which are trying to be heard.
If haunting and persistent regret were an animal, it would not look you in the eye. It may skulk in a corner and feel it didn’t deserve any care or compassion. And how does one befriend this animal so that it can learn to feel it is able to come forward? Rather than beat it with the stick of ‘if only you had…’, if there is any chance at all of coming towards it with compassion and a gentle curiosity, then maybe it can come forward also and speak its story. Maybe there will be a chance to mourn what did or didn’t happen. Regret knows what should or shouldn’t have happened and this knowing has been held in a frozen way for so long. Grieving is painful but when we can accept things for how they really are, or indeed, how they really were, then a sort of relief can come which releases one from that frozen place.
Let us not remove regret entirely…
It is not the role of counselling to remove regret completely. . Regret is born out of the place of wishes, and so it has a sincere purpose. ‘Regret’ comes from an old French word meaning ‘bewail the dead’. We would not want to ever just try and ignore or cancel out these wishes. They were born and so they need to be acknowledged rather than pushed away.
Regret shows us the ‘road not taken’, the wish, the ideal image, the place where the imagination painted a picture of what we hoped would happen. And why would we not want to believe that image (the hope for the IVF to work, the hope that this band will make it big, the hope that this novel will be published). If we didn’t ever dream we would never have the possibility of regret, because we wouldn’t risk. There would be no dreams around to shatter. And so mourning and acceptance lie on the other side on the journey beyond regret.
A final note on regret and grief
One of the most prevalent places where regret is often born is after the death of a loved one. ‘If only we had…”. “If only I had…”. It is a natural part of the grief process. In a gentle way, counselling can invite regret in. It can be a place where all this can be spoken and felt, to mourn the lost opportunities and to come to a point of acceptance for what is. There is a ‘to’ing and fro’ing’ between the past and present that happens in counselling conversation. A counsellor can help support a person by allowing them all the space they need to dive deeply into the past and all those regrets, but also inviting in the ‘here and now’; almost as if the counsellor throws out a rope, and together, through a relationship of trust the client can find solid ground after being at sea for so long.
“One thing I feel clear about is that it's important not to let your life live you. Otherwise, you end up at forty feeling you haven't really lived. What have I learned? Perhaps to live now, so that at fifty I won't look back upon my forties with regret.”
Yalom, I. The Schopenhauer Cure
If you'd like to reflect more on regret, please check out this article which looks at some recent research. You may also like to journal about regret using these journal prompts:
Do get in touch with me if you'd like explore your regrets through counselling: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hague, Matt. The Midnight Library. 2021 by Canongate Books
Whyte, D. Consolations, 2019 Canongate Books
Yalom, D. Irvin. The Schopenhauer Cure, 2009 HarperCollins