The Amazing Power of Regret
By Ray Potter
Have you ever felt guilty? Well, of course you have. If you grew up anywhere in the Western World, you have probably felt guilty at some time in your life. Maybe even at some time today! But not everyone around the globe does. In fact, in some countries—including Tibet—there isn’t even a word for guilt. Tibetans didn’t need a word for a feeling that didn’t exist.
Imagine a whole society without guilt. No “guilting” of others. No “guilt trips.” No bad feelings about something you did (or didn’t do). No beating yourself up about something you said (or didn’t say). You might ask: “How can that be?” Actually, the explanation is very simple. And like so many simple truths, it’s also quite profound. Just hearing about it offers the potential to change your life.
What is guilt exactly? The dictionary definition goes like this: “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined….” So guilt is a feeling. Like all of our feelings, it arises inside of us. And it comes from feeling responsible, often for the pain we have caused someone else (even if we have imagined it). Guilt is a painful feeling for us too. We feel crummy when we feel guilty. That, of course, is the goal of people who “guilt” us by telling us how bad we are.
But how bad are we really? We’re human. And humans make mistakes. It’s part of being human. Does guilt help us? No, it doesn’t. Guilt isn’t useful. It keeps us stuck on ourselves. Our mistakes. Our bad-ness. At the same time, it keeps us looking backward—toward the past where we made those mistakes—while we are living in the present and looking forward toward a better future.
Remember those Tibetans? They don’t have feelings of guilt because they have a much more useful emotion instead: regret. Regret is a very different feeling from guilt. When we feel regret, we look at our mistakes differently. First, we acknowledge that we made a mistake. All humans do. Then we develop two intentions. First, we ask ourselves if there is anything that we can do or say that can help correct our mistake. Then we do it or say it. Often there is something that we can do or say, even years later: make a phone call, send an email. But sometimes there isn’t much we can do. This is where our second intention comes in—and this is the real power of regret. We make the strong determination not to make the same mistake again, meaning that we make sure we try as hard as we can.
Unlike guilt, regret is a positive force. Like us, regret looks forward to a better
future. A future where we are determined not to make the mistakes we made in our past.
This determination leads us to be more mindful about the things we do and say to others. We think more about others’ feelings, which helps us feel better about ourselves. That’s the amazing power of regret.
Ray Potter is a freelance writer and a co-founder of the Dharmachakra Buddhist Center. The DBC offers dharma and meditation classes in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Cathedral City. Ray teaches in the Palm Springs center every Thursday evening. For more information, visit www.MeditationInPalmSprings.org