Regret and Reflection

I found myself captivated by the recent Dare to Lead Podcast with author, Dan Pink, discussing his latest book, The Power of RegretHow Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. Dan weaves rich personal stories and extensive research together to shatter the myth of that age-old advice to “live a life with no regrets”.

Dan was so impassioned about the role that our regrets play in transforming our lives for the better that I found myself actually leaning into this conversation and hanging on every word. He believes that regret is our most misunderstood emotion and it can be the pathway to our best life.

I’ve had regrets throughout my life and most often I kept them to myself. I recall conversations with friends who would say they had no regrets. We’d all agree that we wouldn’t be where we were in life without some of those regrettable decisions. But it was this insightful discussion that Dan Pink had with Brene Brown that made me wonder what different paths we might have taken in our lives had we learned the lessons that our biggest regrets wanted to teach us.

If we were operating under the adage of “no regrets”, we probably just licked our wounds, and powered on through life without taking the time to even consider our values. Is it any wonder that we were prone to repeating the same mistake? Or that we doubled down on our fear of taking a risk or speaking up?

Dan explained that what we “regret the most” shows us what we “value the most.”

Brene Brown has also addressed the “crunchy” subject of regret for years. This insight from 2018 captures the essence of her findings about regret:

I’ve found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom. Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. “No regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.” — Brene Brown (4/26/18)

Dan Pink’s recent research and latest book dovetail with Brene’s body of work – and throughout the podcast, it was evident that they were both inspired by and in awe of each other’s discoveries. This new, enlightened way of viewing regret is compelling.

I began to reflect on the big regrets of my life through a much different lens. What was the life lesson that was imbedded in each of those regrets? It dawned on me that the process of reflecting on regret is yet another tool of self-awareness and personal growth.

How unfortunate that we were told to bypass it.

Just as we are learning that stuffing our emotions and keeping skeletons in the closet was so detrimental to our family dynamics and our own agency in life, this is another big shift in the arena of self-discovery.

Which comes first — the chicken or the egg? Do we recognize our regrets more readily as we peel off childhood armor — or do we learn from regret that we even have that armor, those outgrown behavioral patterns that are not in alignment with our adult values?

Dan Pink pointed out that the older we get, the more we are inclined to look back and have more regrets about the things that we DID NOT do than the things we actually did do. This makes me believe that as we age, and shed the protective armor, we do get more clarity about missed opportunities. We can see more clearly our failures of courage, failures of kindness, failures to take a risk.

All the more reason to teach the value of processing regret in a timely and productive way, so that when life presents a “sliding door” moment, we are better informed and in alignment with our values so that we make the wise choice. This is a radical shift from living a life with no regrets which bypasses the transformational learning.

In his book, The Power of Regret, Dan reveals that “regret is a marker of a healthy, maturing mind. It is so fundamental to our development and so critical to proper functioning that, in adults, its absence can signal a grave problem.” All the more reason not to ignore regret. Perhaps there is some key to our mental well being imbedded in the life lessons from regret. (Learn more about the scientific research that unpacks this in the chapter “Why Regret Makes Us Human.”).

In the chapter “Why Regret Makes Us Better” we learn something we intuitively know — Burying negative emotions doesn’t dissipate them. It intensifies them. It also reinforces all those behavioral patterns we developed in childhood to keep us safe. The problem is we are wearing toddler sized armor in our adult world.

Dan explains that “rumination doesn’t clarify and instruct. It muddles and distracts. When feeling is only for feeling, we build a chamber from which it’s difficult to escape.”

Dan has a better approach for processing regret — Feeling is for thinking.

Don’t dodge emotions. Don’t wallow in them either. Confront them. Use them as a catalyst for future behavior. If thinking is for doing, feeling can help us think.” — (excerpt from The Power of Regret)

Here’s the big distinction that turns processing regret into a tool for personal growth:

“Framing regret as a judgment of our underlying character can be destructive. Framing regret as an evaluation of a particular behavior in a particular situation can be instructive. ” (excerpt from the Power of Regret)

Brene helps us clarify the relevance of this distinction: “Shame is a focus on self — I am bad. Guilt is a focus on behavior – I did something bad.” Framing regret as a judgment of self reinforces shame. Re-framing regret as an opportunity to evaluate a behavior fosters self-awareness and positive change. Game-changing distinction.

Another correlation between shame and regret is that we really don’t want to experience, or talk about, either. Brene has been sharing with us for decades that shame makes us feel small, flawed and never good enough. If we share it, we feel so incredibly vulnerable. When others share their vulnerability, we view it as courage and daring. In ourselves, we view it as weakness.

Is this why when someone takes that first step — and opens up to us about some of their most vulnerable life moments, we can find ourselves breathing a sigh of relief and discover our own courage? It is this mutual understanding and acceptance that forges deeper connections.

That is precisely what Dan discovered when he opened up and began talking about his own regrets. Rather than recoil, people leaned in! People wanted to talk about it — they wanted to engage.

A remarkable discovery was made about disclosing our regrets. Disclosure is both an unburdening and a form of sense-making. “When we convert these blobby, negative emotions to concrete words, it de-fangs them. It helps us make sense of them,” says Dan Pink. That is a mic drop moment right there!

Brene teaches that labeling our emotions correctly is the first step in processing them, and learning from them. Her book, Atlas of the Heart, offers in-depth definitions for 87 emotions so that we can get better at accurately defining them. What we are learning about the misunderstood emotion of regret is that it can be a bucket for many negative emotions, all sloshing around with our values.

So, now we have a “research guide” for an expanded emotional vocabulary in Atlas of the Heart — AND — we have all the wisdom and tools that Dan provides in the Power of Regret to expand our life lessons’ education.

“Our fear is that when we disclose failures, setbacks, missteps of our own, we think that people will like us less — and the evidence is overwhelming, after 30 years of behavioral science study, people like us more. This is vulnerability “ — Dan Pink (stated emphatically in the Dare to Lead podcast). Yes, this is another mic drop moment.

I can share (again) from my personal experience that the above statement is absolutely true. This is precisely what transpired in my Zoom Book Club over the course of two years with a group of women that really did not know each other very well. As we took a deep dive into Untamed, and now Atlas of the Heart, we stuck our toes in the pool and began to share how our own life experiences mirrored what we were reading and discussing. The more we shared with each other, the more we all leaned in, and the closer knit our friendship became. To be quite honest, a group of women scattered across counties and country, with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences have more in common than we could have ever imagined. Vulnerability was indeed the bridge that forged our deep connection.

We haven’t gotten to the chapter on Disappointment and Regret in Atlas just yet, but I have a keen feeling that we will be doing some major exploration and excavation when we do. The more “unburdening and de-fanging” we do, the more space we have in our hearts and lives for purpose and intention.

Dan shares that framing regret as an opportunity helps us transform it — from a leaden blanket to a sharp stick. This image brought to mind just what it feels like when we are emotionally burdened with our armor. I’d trade that any day for a laser pointer on a whiteboard.

Dan’s book is chock full of tips for more effective problem solving and sturdier emotional health — that oddly enough all come from the one thing we’ve been told to steer clear of — REGRET.

What I am enjoying so much about Dan’s book is how he combines his research with heart-opening real life stories from people he interviewed about their regrets. He uses one of my favorite backdrops for revealing how our cracks make us better — the Japanese art of Kintsugi — which is repairing broken pottery by sanding down the rough edges of the broken pieces and gluing them back together with a lacquer mixed with gold. It is not the artisan’s goal to faithfully reproduce the original work or even to conceal those acquired flaws. It is to transform the pottery into something better. The bowls are beautiful because of their imperfections — the cracks make them better. Dan’s gift of storytelling reveals to us how the same is true for us human beings. It is the vulnerability of others as they share their regrets and subsequent life lessons that opens us up to accepting a brand new way of viewing both disappointments and regrets.

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