Start by making a list of your regrets. Get them out of your head and onto paper. Things are always less overwhelming when pulled from inner ruminations and looked at objectively on paper. This allows you to face them so you can better come to terms with your regrets. This is the beginning of deciding how to deal with your regrets.
Identify what you can and can’t control
The many things in life we have no control over we have to leave with God. It does no good to anxiously meditate on them for we have absolutely no control over them. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 6, it is an exercise in futility for it will not change anything. Instead focus on what you have control over. In regard to the past, you can’t change it but you can learn from it. Don’t keep doing the same thing and generating more regrets. Do the hard work of self-evaluation and figure out why you did certain things. This means becoming more self-aware, penetrating defense mechanisms and looking for core causes. This can be painful, hard work that requires courage and often the help of a good therapist. However, you can’t change something you aren’t aware of and believe it needs to be changed.
Often in this process comes the need to make amends to others that you have hurt. This may mean a sincere apology and asking for their forgiveness. It may mean making some kind of restitution for the wrong. This requires wisdom and often working through the how and even if it should be done with a counselor. Don’t do something that will make the situation worse. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done.
Change your perspective
As we go through life and the regrets pile up, we often learn that what we thought was important wasn’t. This is called perspective. That is why our priorities and values often change over time. As we age, our focus shifts from the temporal to that which is more lasting. A common experience between the ages of 45-55 is what is commonly referred to as “midlife crisis.” I call this the existential crisis as we look for life’s meaning. We realize how fast life has gone by, and we don’t have unlimited time. We look at things achieved and not achieved and ask am I happy, where does my life go from here? Is there anything after death? This is when the regrets can really come crashing in.
This is the time to evaluate both the good and bad of your life, learn from all of it, readjust and determine to finish well. While many people do not change over time for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t mean that you can’t. Now is the time to establish a new goal regardless of how your life has gone. The new goal is to finish well. We call this redemption. This is also God’s message in the Bible, a story of redemption, a story of God’s love for sinful broken humanity. A love so powerful that God sent his son into this broken world to die and pay the price for our sin. In doing so he redeems all of us along with his creation, making it possible to finish well.
Look for opportunity to serve others
God uses people and circumstances among other things to complete his work of restoring the image of God in us.
He uses all things good and bad to accomplish this purpose (Romans 8:28-29).
This develops in us what is commonly called our life message. It is the message of what God’s grace has done in us. We serve others out of the overflow of this message from our life into the lives of others with similar needs. We are presented with a tremendous opportunity to help others heal or not make the same mistakes. In serving, we help others eliminate future regrets. Focus on this rather than on all your regrets.
If anyone could have been paralyzed by his regrets, it would have been the Apostle Paul. He persecuted the church of Christ and was responsible for the death of many believers. You cannot undo killing someone. However, Paul experienced the grace of God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Listen to how Paul handled his regrets; “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Paul was saying the only thing he could do was move on toward the heavenly city and finish well. There are some things we can’t forget. We use those memories in a positive sense to inoculate us from future temptation. We know one day God will wipe away all tears including our regrets.
Dr. John Hawkins, Sr. runs Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach along with his son John Jr. He can be reached by visiting gatewaycounseling.com.