Live Life With Regrets

Dumb question: Have you ever made a mistake?

I’m still waiting for someone to invent a “delete” button for personal choices. Or at least a “do-over” button.

I think about my mistakes a lot. Some of them have been one-time occurrences: giving in to some temptation or other, saying something stupid that I didn’t really mean (or maybe I did mean, but I shouldn’t have), chickening out of something I should have done. I’ve found myself thinking about that mistake for days, weeks, months, and even years. I replay the scene over and over and over again, with all the endings it should have had. What’s actually happening is that I’m trying, vainly, to mentally “delete” it. It’s a painful, crippling, and downright exhausting process.

Some mistakes have been more complicated: misaligned priorities, selfish attitudes, hypocritical mindsets. Those kinds of mistakes are the worst, because they aren’t about what I did, but about who I was (and sometimes, still am). The imaginary “delete” button doesn’t even work for them, because I’d have to delete entire segments of my life, and I don’t really want to do that. So for these mistakes, instead of “deleting,” I apply the equally crippling and exhausting, though not quite as painful, process of mental “editing.”

I have some help in these processes. My inner Perfectionist is usually in charge of “deleting,” and my helper in “editing” is someone I call the Justifier. She just tries to convince me that my mistakes weren’t really mistakes, or that I couldn’t reasonably have done things any better, or that those faulty attitudes were really just personality traits that made me me. She does this by exaggerating the faults of others, blaming people and circumstances, and telling me all the great things about myself that have absolutely nothing to do with the mistake in question.

The Perfectionist and the Justifier are constantly fighting, but neither are ever right. They just fight because that’s what they do. The Perfectionist is bent on making me feel like a failure for not being perfect, and the Justifier is bent on making me think I’m already perfect. The only reason I keep them around is because they shield me from this awful thing called Regret.

I was sitting in church one day as a missionary in Preston, England. I was thinking about how fast my mission had gone, and how I wished I had known and done more. If I could go back and do it all over, I thought, I’d do it so much better. Then a Romanian sister spoke from the pulpit. She’d had the exact same feelings about a mission she had served several years earlier. She must have been acquainted with the Perfectionist and the Justifier, too. But she’d gotten rid of them. How?

She said that she finally realized, “If I could look back and say that I wouldn’t have done anything differently, I would be failing. That would mean I hadn’t learned anything! How depressing!”

This was a great “duh” moment for me. It made sense: no journey or finish line is impressive that didn’t start somewhere, and I’d rather be moving forward than backward. Regret isn’t my enemy; the presence of Regret simply means I’m better now than I was before. Which means I’m actually winning at this whole “life” thing. Sweet!

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I  can evict the Perfectionist and evict the Justifier. I’m probably not going to go looking for Regret or ask her to move in with me, but when she stops by we can have lunch and a nice chat. She’s good for me. Way better than keeping around those other roommates, anyway. They’re pesky, and they still drop by pretty often, but I’m working on standing my ground.

So if you’re struggling with Regret, remember that it only means you’re improving. Why is it so hard then? Well, to start, see if there’s a Perfectionist or a Justifier hanging around.