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Overcoming Regrets

I REMEMBER hitching a ride with a friend and he accidentally bumped his car against a post. As he drove on, this time with a pronounced bump on his fender, he muttered “I’m so ashamed of myself.” I kid thee not. I heard it as clear as day.

Don’t get me wrong. When something goes wrong, it’s normal to feel bad. But why do some people take it so personally that they feel like dirt? Strangely, there are people who are quick to forgive others but they just can’t forgive themselves. They love beating themselves up. In so doing, they are letting a joyless past rob them of a joyful present.

The root cause is that we are clinging to an idealized image of ourselves. In the case of my friend, he wanted to be a flawless driver, with nary a scratch on the paint job. When his car “kissed” that post, it wasn’t just the fender which suffered a dent that day.

Are you still wincing over a bum decision you made ages ago? Perhaps the perfectionist image you are harboring (and you may not even know it) is one where you are so smart that you will always make the right choices. Then when the opposite happened, that image taunts you “How can you be so stupid? You should have known better!” And you, poor you, moan “Yeah, yeah! Guilty!”

So what’s the solution? Loosen up on that perfectionism. Instead, pursue excellence. Let us admit that we will inevitably do something that we will later wish we didn’t. Until someone invents a time machine, it’s part of life. It comes with being human. That way, we cut ourselves some slack. Sure, we may still feel regret, but the sting will not be as paralyzing.

Then, armed with lessons from the past, we will make wiser decisions and do more of the right deeds. Since we can’t let go of our past, we will have to live with our past. The real question is how? With blessing or bitterness? With gratitude or grumbling? With redemption or regret?

In my book Regrets No More, I teach that we make a peace pact with ourselves. Think of it as being at war with regret, guilt, anxiety, or sorrow. The irony is that we raise these enemies within ourselves, for example, the inner critic. We declare a cessation of hostilities. The next time we sense the enemy creeping back, we hold up the treaty (it can be literally written down, if we want to) and tell the negative emotion “Hold it right there. This says you will stop.”

We are not the same people we were five, ten, or twenty years ago. That’s because life continues to shape our personalities, perceptions and priorities. Ideally, we grow in love and wisdom as the years roll by. Yes, that includes the past.

Therefore, leverage the past for your maturity. Did the hurt deepen your empathy? Has the career mistake revealed what you really want in life? Will the failed business train you how to bounce back? There are priceless lessons that can be learned only through the college of hard knocks. Don’t waste the tuition. It is impossible to lead a perfect life. But it is never too late to lead an excellent one.

In fact, it is never too late for a friend to become a careful yet happy driver.

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