Getting the Most Out of Regret

My top five regrets:

  1. Not dropping everything and going to the west coast when my sister’s husband was going through cancer treatment.
  2. Not being emotionally honest with friends for the first half of my life.
  3. Not traveling to a close friend’s destination wedding because it felt too expensive.
  4. Teasing a middle school classmate.
  5. Not getting a part-time job when I started writing (full time) seven years ago.  

According to Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology at the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio, “Regret is the second most common emotion mentioned in our daily lives.”  

Much like guilt and shame, regret follows an emotional orbit around the belief that things could have gone differently if only. If only I had decided to trust God for more freelance work and gone to the wedding. If only I had stopped the teasing rather than contributing to it. If only I had the courage to let people see me when I was vulnerable. 

Author Michelle Van Loon sagely writes in her book If Only: Letting Go of Regret:

Few of us walk through life without accumulating regret. At some point, our past choices collide with the reality that there is no do-over button in life. Those two little words—“if only”—shackle us to a life that falls short of the freedom and joy promised us by Jesus. 

Professor Summerville believes that a big part of why we struggle with regret has to do with the idea of rumination. In an NPR interview, she explained that “Rumination is having thoughts spring unwanted to our mind and chewing them over and over without actually getting anything new out of them. They’re just repeatedly, intrusively, becoming part of our mental landscape.”

Though there’s often pain and sorrow connected to our regret, it doesn’t necessarily benefit us. We may regret yelling at our children or regret spending two hours looking at pornography but then choose to hide our sins from others and refrain from doing the hard work of addressing the problem.

If regret does not lead to repentance, it can become little more than a cul-de-sac of passivity and avoidance.  

If we’re serious about following Jesus, one of our main goals should be to become increasingly holy (Heb. 10:10). Regretting, or ruminating on our failures does not bring transformation into the image of Christ. In fact, it might be what the apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor. 7:10). Grieving, confessing, asking for help, and whenever possible, making amends should be the outworking of godly sorrow. 

In that same NPR interview, Summerville expressed her belief that “Regret is actually a hopeful emotion.” I agree. By acknowledging regret but then not to camp out there, it can motivate us to grow.

As I look back on my top five regrets, it would be easy to endlessly eddy around worldly sorrow and feel awful about myself. Instead, I’ve learned to ask the Holy Spirit to empower me to become more empathetic, less fearful, and more of a risk taker. In short, I’m refusing to play out the if only scenarios and choosing to learn from my regret, rather than just regretting it. 

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Dorothy Greco

Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful. She writes about the intersection faith and contemporary culture, relationships, parenting, leadership, and race for many publications including Christianity Today, Relevant, Biola University, and many more. You can find more of Dorothy’s writing on her site or by following her on Facebook or Twitter.

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