I recently watched a video called Can You Really Change the World in Two Hours? It’s a talk by Mara Gleason and Michael Neill. In the video, Mara describes how she once met a man who was writing a book about acceptance. The author, after many stormy years, was finally at peace in his life. He was excited to be learning, discovering his own wisdom and writing his book.
The author was also an inmate on death row.
I assume from the way Mara described the man that he was sorry for the crime he had committed and the hurt he had caused. I’m also quite sure that you cannot write a book about acceptance and hold on to regret.
Acceptance is the opposite of regret.
Feel sorry for events that have occurred and you can embrace acceptance. Feel regret and you start touring an imaginary world of what could have been and should have been – a world where acceptance isn’t on the map.
A regret is what you make up when you think an event in the past still controls the present and that if that event had happened differently, the outcome would have been better.
By holding on to a regret, you assume you can accurately predict the future from any moment in time, including the past, which none of us can.
Even for someone who has committed a terrible crime, they can never predict what would have happened if they hadn’t, for example, picked up their weapon on that day. Perhaps they would have picked up two weapons the next day, or convinced four people to pick up their weapons two days later. Or perhaps they could have never picked up a weapon in their life but instead, they might have lived out their dream of becoming a driver of a mobile library, until one day they were caught in a sneezing fit as they drove their library truck across a railroad, which caused the truck to get stuck and then maybe a passenger train approached at full speed…or maybe it didn’t.
I hope you see my point. The possibilities of what could have been from any moment in time are endless, which is why regret is made up – a futile mind game played with the assumption that there is nothing you can do to create something better from a seemingly bad situation.
Regrets are the barriers we place between ourselves and limitless potential.
The example of a man on death row embracing acceptance over regret is an extreme example, but it is relevant to us all. By the time we have reached midlife, we have all made mistakes (sometimes they were apparent mistakes), and we have all experienced regret and believed it to be real.
We have also all witnessed “real regret” disappear. Sometimes it disappears within just hours, sometimes days, and sometimes months or years. No matter how long it takes, the pattern of how regret disappears is always the same.
Events that we may regret remain unchanged. But our thoughts about events change, allowing regrets to come and go.
So if at midlife you’re holding on to a regret, or a bunch of them, the events that appear to be the source of those regrets will never change, but your thinking about those events can change, in an instant (or perhaps by the time you finish reading this post).
Regrets held on through midlife can become central to our identities – the “if only” story we tell ourselves, the badge we wear, and unfortunately, the wall of thought we create between ourselves and good health and happiness.
I wanted to write about regret because I see how regrets impact women at midlife and because women’s regrets have hit the headlines recently.
The Guardian, Marie Claire and other media outlets have featured stories on women who regret becoming mothers. The topic is somewhat in vogue. The articles make tough reading.
Laura, 37, from the Marie Claire article states: “I think the word for what I felt is 'trapped.' After I had a kid, I realized I hated being the mother to an infant, but by then it was too late. I couldn't walk away and still live with myself, but I also couldn't stand it. I felt like my life was basically a middle-class prison."
I know motherhood can be hard (I co-authored a book on the subject) but regretting motherhood is a dead-end strategy to overcome the challenges women face.
What is the next step for the women in the articles who now "own" regretting motherhood? Where do they go from there?
Regrets start as thoughts about how bad things are, and the mistakes we’ve made. As we give those thoughts more attention and start to take them more seriously, the thoughts become more compelling and regrets are born.
We can’t control all the thoughts that enter our minds because we can’t control the environment in which we live (for example, in the case of motherhood, we can’t control when our kids will play up, get sick, exhaust us and the thoughts that appear as a result). What we can control is the attention we give those thoughts. We can put those thoughts on a big stage, turn on the spotlights, analyze them and reanalyze them, or we can recognize them for what they are – nothing more than thoughts that can at any time be replaced by new thoughts. Turning our thoughts into a Broadway production called Regret is our choice, every time.
After reading the women’s stories in The Guardian and Marie Claire, I kept wondering, if they absolutely had to choose a regret, could the women not have chosen something less fatalistic?
How about regretting starting a family without the support every mother needs; regretting their choice of an unsuitable partner; regretting the prevalence of traditional roles in families; regretting they hadn’t saved up for a full-time nanny and cook since the age of 16; or regretting they hadn’t become mothers in Norway … and how about not regretting something that we cannot change.
Motherhood can’t be undone and children can’t be unmade so what’s the point of dwelling on such devastating thoughts of regret, especially when every single regret is made up, and every single regret will eat at your soul?
Women who regret becoming mothers have processed their thoughts in a similar way to women who regret they never became mothers, and women who are mothers and regret staying at home with the kids, and women who returned to work after having kids and regret not staying at home.
Each of these women is assuming that if she had taken the opposite route from that which she took, she’d be happier. It’s a thought that each woman is taking very seriously but each thought is an assumption.
A woman who returned to work after having kids and now regrets it, can’t be certain that if she’d stayed at home she’d be more fulfilled and her children happier; just as the women who regrets having kids can’t be sure that the career she wishes she could have pursued would have fulfilled her and left her free of other regrets…like a regret she didn’t have children.
We dwell on regrets because we want change and we want to feel happier, yet all we can ever do to be happier is something in the moment.
And if you haven’t already noticed, at midlife, the emotional and physical symptoms that can burden you in your 40s (or late 30s and 50s) are a result of your body telling you to drop your regrets, stop those mind games, and focus on life and love in this moment because that is the only thing we can ever change.
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