How to Make Regret a Catalyst For Positive Change
I want to talk about regret. I know this feeling. I am very familiar with it. Regret is defined as ‘a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do’. It has been something that I believe many people hold within themselves and it hurts like hell. It’s a double-edged sword.
Regret is the worst feeling I have ever felt within my heart, closely followed by a broken heart. It has also been the greatest catalyst for change and as such is a really great motivator for positive change if people choose to be proactive after the regretted incident or choice. The feeling of letting yourself and those around you down is generally a really unpleasant way to feel.
I want to tell you about an experience that has changed my whole life and it is a story which has a happy ending but the regret part is what I want to focus on. Like most young boys who love to play guitar and play in bands, you have the thoughts that you are going to be famous and as big as Oasis or the Beatles and do the thing you love for the rest of your life. That was one of my half-baked fantasies when I was a kid and something I halfheartedly pursued as a teen and into my twenties. I loved to play and sing at parties as many of my friends will attest to. I wasn’t a bad player and have a decent singing voice but I wasn’t really putting the necessary attention into honing my craft that would be needed to be successful in music. This is one of my regrets that I have subsequently learned from. Either go all in or don’t bother at all.
When I was 21 (today is the 15 year anniversary), something really life altering happened to me. I fell from a building, four stories high, whilst on holiday abroad. I really should have been killed, but amazingly, I survived, and on reflection, only with minor injuries. I had damaged my foot really badly (severed forefoot) and had broken my arm, but apart from that, I was OK.
I had regrets, though. I had not taken care of myself. I had not been responsible for myself. I had been very irresponsible and I knew it was no accident. I had consumed a cocktail of substances and I didn’t even know where I was when the incident happened. My first memory was waking up in a hospital theatre with a doctor shouting at me that I had taken something (not the most pleasant way to awaken to this nightmarish outcome).
Welcome back to the world Rob, I was still alive. I looked at my arm and felt how sore it was and thought to myself, ‘I may never be able to play guitar again’. I looked down at the doctor sewing my foot back to my leg and thought to myself, ‘I may never walk properly again’. I was so full of regrets. It really was like a puncture in my heart. I couldn’t stop crying. Then blank, the anaesthetist must have knocked me out again.
The days were long and lonely in that hospital bed in a foreign country, without the ability to get up and walk away and pretend it was all a dream. I hadn’t even got the ability to get up and go to the bathroom. Regret was becoming familiar to me and I didn’t like the feeling. Karen Schultz talks about regret in a Ted talk and mentions the characteristics of regrets. She highlights denial, bewilderment, punishment of self, and perseveration as the hallmarks that go along with episodes of regret and I can concur that all those things were my experience too.
In the following days, I really tried to deny it happened and that soon I would be taken out of there and my healthy body would be given back to me but no amount of pretending and denying would make what had happened go away. This was closely followed by bewilderment with ‘how could I have possibly done this to myself’? Then the thought that I should be punished and to never be allowed step outside ever again without supervision. And then came bouts of excessively and repeatedly going over the incident (what I could remember of it) in my head.
Perseveration is very interesting. It is a constant rewinding of the inevitable moment or moments where you have to take a look at yourself and take responsibility for the actions. It is the best and worst. The denial of agency, to the accepting of responsibility is what makes the circle of regret complete.
In all, I spent 8 days alone in that hospital before being allowed to transit back to Ireland. I told my parents not to travel over when they called me on the phone. I was in no way ready to have them come over to share in my misery and I am glad that I spent that time with myself. I did a lot of soul-searching in that hospital bed. I even had some discussions with god. A hospital church worker came to visit me and that was something that I looked forward to.
My friends who had travelled with me on the holiday also visited me on a few occasions but in many ways it didn’t serve to cheer me up, rather it made my regret stronger because they would be leaving and I would have to stay in that hospital bed watching the fallout of the September 11th attacks and the hunt for Bin Laden on TV. When my friends did leave, I got back to my talks with god and I had begun to look at my whole life and considered the idea that I really had in fact been quite lucky or blessed.
Falling four stories from an apartment block and surviving with only fractured limbs led me to question some divine intervention in the incident. The haze of the cocktail of substances coursing through my body made the memory of the moment of impact impossible, which is a more favourable than regrettable outcome but is also one that opened my mind up to the potential of divine intervention.
I remember committing to a huge change in my life. I was pretty unsatisfied with my life at the time. I had been in a relationship for a couple of years and was only 21 and being single was new to me at the time. I was going to start big changes and as the days went by in that bed my thought process grew as to what I was going to do when I got back home. I was going to commit to education. I was going to quit being irresponsible. I was going to work on who I was and how was being in the world. I also committed to serving the world in a greater capacity and to provide value in something that aligned with my heart, which was fairly uncertain at that time. I felt slightly better but still massively regretful upon leaving the hospital. I said goodbye to all the staff who were tasked with looking after me and got wheeled to the ambulance and taken back to Ireland after 9 days there alone.
Over the course of the last 15 years, my beliefs about things such as god and who I am have changed dramatically. I no longer believe that any metaphysical anomalies occurred on that day in September 2001. I also look back and believe that it was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It gave me a massive opportunity and served as a catalyst to press the reset button on my life. The direction that I was taking at the time wasn’t leading anywhere positive.
I did commit and follow through on most of the promises I made to myself and god in that bed. I educated myself and continue that commitment to this day. I have become a much better and happier person than I once was. I stopped with the substance abuse and neglect of my body. I now have the greatest relationship I have ever had, with the most amazing woman. I also committed to offering my services to be of value to the world in a greater way than I could have done, being in the job I was in at the time.
I now work in the coaching industry helping people achieve the results they want and getting their lives to a place they want it to be. This matches my hearts commitment from my memory back in that hospital bed. Would I prefer to have a fully functional foot and be able to kick a ball about? Of course, I would, but I now choose to consider it a small price to pay for the leaps and bounds I have come in the past fifteen years since it happened. Who knows what type of person I would be today had this not happened. I wasn’t really very good at football anyway and was never going to be the next Pele. I never lost the ability to play the guitar as I’d initially feared and I still get great pleasure from doing so to this day.
So should people dwell in regret? In my view, it’s certainly not going to move them forward. My regret started to fade away as I became more and more proactive and following through on my commitments to change. Setting the goal to change is one thing. Not giving up on it and doing small steps which move us towards the goal is what is important. I have mourned the loss and considered the causes which created the string of bad choices I made as a young person. I think that is vital to understanding what it is that makes us do what we do. That honesty is difficult because it means confronting uncomfortable issues around our history but is exactly where the growth gold lays in wait for those brave enough to mine it.
That commitment to our integrity and growing self-awareness around what is of value to us is where the rubber hits the road in our emotional landscape. I believe that paying the closest attention to the harmony of what our core is telling us to do is where the bedrock of success in anything is nurtured.
As I reached my new goals and targets, I was able to move those feelings of regret to feelings of appreciation for who I was becoming. If you regret something, I guess a good question to ask is, what can you learn from what has happened and are you moving towards learning that lesson in the best way you can? Are you being honest with yourself about everything or do you avoid the hard truths?
Are you incorporating the feedback the world and your emotions are giving you into the new person you want to become? If you are, I think the natural effect of doing so is that the regret starts to loosen its hold on your heart and you begin to appreciate the new you that you are becoming. This is how we begin to thrive and create a new mindset of pro-activity instead of reacting to how the world is acting upon is. We can all be very powerful if we choose to be. As Frank Sinatra put it, having too few regrets to mention is an outcome I would be content with at the end of my life, having done it my way.