A black and white photo of a woman leaning on a step

Most of my friends would describe me as cautiously optimistic. I’ve always tried to make a point of learning from the past. I dive wholeheartedly into the opportunities of life, but I also do my best to recall prior mistakes and look before I leap.

However, in the past, my vigilant nature actually got in the way of my happiness. When important decisions would arise, I analyzed my choices later. If I didn’t get my desired result or even if those decisions led to pain, I vowed not to get burnt again. After a while, the discretion I’d initially viewed as proactive and smart began to isolate me from the world and from my own growth. 

When I lost my dream job in TV that I’d worked so hard for, I began to shy away from the industry as a whole. In my mind, the media world now seemed like an unreliable source of employment. After I was hurt in a relationship, I couldn’t quite make it to a second date with any potential suitors for a long time. My internal warning bell was on constant alert, and I wrote off some perfectly nice guys without giving them a chance. 

Although gaining perspective on the past can be a true gift, I had taken things too far. I sought out refuge in regret and used it as a safe haven from the risk of truly living. My intentions were good, but I was living in self-protection mode. Every time I put myself out there, remorse from the past would resurface.

I sought out refuge in regret and used it as a safe haven from the risk of truly living.

In an effort to make better choices, I obsessively looked for red flags, which sometimes weren’t even there. As I was gripping tightly to past hurts, I wasn’t allowing the present to unfold the way it needed to.

They say a life lived is a life replete with choices. Some go well, and some just don’t work out. Oftentimes, we tend to beat ourselves up over our mistakes. If only we’d studied harder for that test, said yes to that date or hadn’t hit reply all on that email, then we might have come out on top.

Regret is exhausting. It can suck the fulfillment from our days and leave us stuck looking back. These thoughts can even have an effect on our mental health. Recent research has shown that regret is directly related to lower self-esteem. We all have pasts—the sum of experiences and quirks that make us who we are. The key is to work through our past mistakes and regrets, instead of allowing them to inhibit the present and our futures. 

Regret is exhausting. It can suck the fulfillment from our days and leave us stuck looking back.

There is no yellow brick road.

Sometimes, when a situation goes south, we look back at the path we “could have” or “should have” taken with rose-colored glasses. We assume that route would’ve been better than the one we chose. However, the truth is we can’t know for sure what the other option would have held. The fixation on the choice we didn’t make is the seed for our deepest regrets, and it causes us to question our judgment.

We’ll never know for sure what the best choice was. Therefore, it is important to not dwell on the past and the “could haves” and “should haves” in our minds. We need to be gentle with ourselves and accept that we did the best we could with the information we had at the time. 

In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” he writes, “Let’s not burden our remembrance with a heaviness that’s gone.” The things from the past that anchor in self-doubt no longer exist. We need to forgive ourselves, and bid those regrets farewell as they move further away in the rearview mirror. Decide to part ways with the guilt from mistakes from long ago. Some mistakes cannot be helped regardless of our best intentions, but all mistakes present us with opportunities to learn. 

We need to be gentle with ourselves and accept that we did the best we could with the information we had at the time. 

Mistakes are misunderstood friends.

In life, no one is able to hit the ball out of the park every single time. Stumbling blocks are a part of growth. One of my biggest turning points in parting with regret was when I finally gave myself permission to make mistakes and get it wrong sometimes.

This hit me one day when I asked myself an honest question: What is the worst that could happen if I just go for the things I really want in life? It dawned on me that no matter what choices I made, there would always be ups and downs. There was no avoiding it. I suddenly felt liberated by this, and the heaviness of the past began to dissipate. 

Soon enough, my world began to open up. I began to pursue creative work again and move on to second dates, even if I had no clue whether the guy was right for me. Not all the relationships and jobs I’ve had were perfect, but they helped me get to know myself on a deeper level. Ultimately, they led me to the fulfilling career and loving partner I have today. 

The lessons of life are there to embrace. Now, in the place of my regret is contentment. I’ve lightened my load by shrugging off the heavy coat of guilt and remorse. Growth means falling on my face and then getting up, dusting myself off and moving forward.  

Have you learned to work through past regrets? How can you learn from mistakes without carrying guilt or shame into the future?

Image via Elke Van De Velde, Darling Issue No. 21

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