I just finished Matt Haig’s bestselling book, “The Midnight Library.”
It’s one of the most thoughtful, creative, honest, and inspiring books I’ve read in a long time. If you’ve been eyeing it, definitely pick it up.
In the story, a woman who is disappointed with her life and filled with regrets attempts to take her own life. While in the space between life and death, she gets a rare opportunity to visit The Midnight Library, where she “test drives” the different lives she could’ve or might’ve lived had she chosen a different path.
What if she’d gone further with her swimming career?
What if she’d married the man who wanted to open his own pub?
What if she’d become a rock star?
What if she’d had children, become an explorer, or had spent more time with her parents?
Haig, also the author of “Reasons to Stay Alive,” is no stranger to these questions and feelings of regret, as he himself suffers from depression and has wanted to kill himself. So, the insights the character makes along the way likely mirror those the author himself has discovered:
It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. “The Midnight Library,” Matt Haig
We all know and have felt the heavy presence of regret. It clouds the present moment with “be carefuls” and “remember last times.” It makes us doubt ourselves and subsequently limits our freedom. It’s a nagging weight on our conscience, preventing us from free choice and mobility.
We speak its universal language, coded in “if onlys” and “what ifs.” We recognize its universal sensation as holes in our hearts where contentment should dwell, or a granite wall in our minds where gratitude should bloom.
The universal result of regret is a life merely half-lived—unable or afraid to move on because we haven’t yet finished with our past.
A writer friend of mine took an unofficial poll for an article he was writing on regret and discovered that most of those polled would, if they could, go back in time and redo certain parts of their lives. He commented afterward, “People are burdened.”
In an official study from the U.K. non-profit Remember a Charity, 2000 people were asked how they felt about their life choices, and four out of 10 agreed they would do things differently if given the option.
My friend is right—regret is a burden. Regret is as heavy as a stone and weighs us down, closes our minds, and narrows our options. It strips us of joy, contentment, and gratitude in the present moment. If there ever was a thief of time, let’s not blame procrastination. Let’s blame regret.
But every emotion has a role in our lives, and this includes regret. Regret’s purpose is to show us where we can find hidden lessons, gems of wisdom, and strands of healing for ourselves and our relationships.
Many adults have “bucket lists” of things they want to do before they die. But if you’re ready to start heeding regret’s message for us, here are a few “bucket list” suggestions to work with—so that you can live.
How to free yourself of regret
- Make amends with yourself and othersIf you’re like me, many of your regrets have to do with ways in which you disappointed others. Sometimes in these cases, we discovered we needed to reprioritize our lives. Other times, we needed to learn how to communicate better, or ask questions first, or wait a little longer before replying. These are things we learn “on the job,” so to speak. We might hear about them in theory, but it’s not embodied wisdom until we experience them for ourselves.If you have a nagging regret about letting someone down, breaking a promise, or some other shortfall, but you haven’t made amends, now’s the time to drum up the courage to do so. Even if this person(s) is no longer in your life or of this world, you can still write a letter to them, or in some other way express your feelings and apology energetically.
In this process, remember to forgive yourself. We often forgive others easier than we forgive ourselves. But our willingness to forgive failures in others that we wouldn’t forgive in ourselves is a form of egoism, and we should get over that. We’re only human, and hurting each other is an inevitable part of living. Acknowledge, apologize appropriately (no excuses, buts, or conditions), and lighten your load.
- Think of life as a Choose Your Own Adventure book.Some readers may remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. In these books, readers got to choose which path they’d like to take, and then turn to the appropriate page, i.e., “If you’d like to befriend the monster, turn to page 62; if you’d rather throw sticks at it, turn to page 75.”These books were fun as children, and they can offer us a joyful way to think about moving through life as adults, too. Every experience, decision, and encounter in life brings growth opportunities. There are no perfect paths, only our path.
Choice by choice, we are like artists, creating a masterpiece of a life that no one else could or will ever live again. No matter which path we walk, we can trust that the experiences we have are the right ones for us. Sign your name to your life. Share it abundantly.
- Uncover and live the lessons you’ve learned
One of the primary purposes of regret is to open our eyes to the lessons that are available from our mistakes. Regret conveys that we have not yet integrated all the possible lessons from our experiences. Some events in our lives are goldmines when it comes to opportunities for growth. No matter how long ago these events took place, if you’ve got a “goldmine” story from which you still experience regret, go back and start sifting for more gold.Then, don’t stop at intellectually understanding the lessons, integrate them into who you are. There is no greater tribute to our “mistakes” and “wrong turns” in life than to live a life in which these same mistakes are not likely to repeat.
- Practice gratitude and contentment
These are practices that might sound simple in theory, but in a world where the “myth of more” is so prevalent, it takes a lot of work to let ourselves be grateful and express content.Gratitude is a practice of acknowledging all that we have in our lives—from the basics of food and water to the opportunity to study spirituality or further our personal growth. And contentment is the practice of being at peace with one’s life and decisions—without exception. As regret moves out of our body, gratitude and contentment can move in—and I promise they are much better roommates.
- Trust that if you had known better, you would’ve done better
For those regrets that arose from naiveté or simply lack of experience, we need to give ourselves a break. Sometimes, we don’t know better until we know better. So, you didn’t know that you shouldn’t go into a partnership without a business plan. Now, you do. You didn’t think to ask for directions first. Now, you will. We didn’t come to this earth as fully-loaded computers. We came here as empty vessels, open to learning. When we learn something is not as important as that we learn something. Give yourself credit for all the things you know now and can pass on to future generations (but know they will need to learn from their own experiences, anyway!)
- Remember, you are enough
We expect too much from ourselves. We expect that we always behave the right way, say the right thing, make the right choices. But what about just being enough? Where are the goals that say we will do enough of the right things, make enough of the right choices, and get rid of these ideas of “all” and “always.”Practice self-love and self-acceptance. We cannot be all things to all people. But we can be just the right voice for just the right person. Release the expectations that tell us we should always have our sh*t together and step fully into your flawed and beautiful humanity.
- Letting go of the “fruits”“The Bhagavad Gita,” an ancient Hindu text that teaches that we are only responsible for our actions, not the results of our actions. Results are not in our control, nor should they be. Our life’s work is to do our best and then let go of the results. Easier said than done, but if your regret is not about a choice you made but about how it turned out, let it go. That’s not yours to carry.
- Find the humor
There are many things in life we take too seriously, and this includes ourselves and our journeys. But there’s nothing more freeing than seeing the humor in our mistakes and missteps. Once apologies have been offered, once lessons have been mined, what’s left to do but laugh at ourselves a little bit? Let’s shine more light on the ridiculousness of human nature and stop giving so much space to the unattainable goals of perfectionism.
- Trust your path is the right journey at the right time
Should we have moved? Taken in that stray dog? Quit the job? Gotten married or divorced?Unless you’re the character in Matt Haig’s book, we won’t ever know what our life would be like had we made any other decisions than the ones we did. We will never know if the grass truly was greener. It’s what we gain from our experiences that matter, not the experiences themselves. Make peace with yourself. Surrender harsh judgment and criticism and instead cultivate discernment and awareness.
- Live more mindfully
The best way to live regret-free is to live each day as mindfully as possible. Take your time before sending that email. Wait a while before accepting a job. Mull things over. Consider all the options and potential consequences. Seek advice from trusted friends and family. And then, once you make your decision, leave no room for regret. A mindful life leads to an enriched life, one fully unburdened by regret.
I understand the power of regret sometimes makes us wish we could go back in time with our current knowledge so we could say or do things differently. Like all of us, I have felt the weight of regret for things both done and not done. But I do not carry any regrets anymore. I have made my mistakes and learned from them. I know there are other choices I could’ve made, but I sit contently with the path I chose.
We all can do this. We can appreciate and find the humor and humanity in our foibles and missteps. We can forgive ourselves, ask for forgiveness, move on, and try again.
We can either turn our power and our days over to mulling about regrets, or we can realize that there is magic in the lives we are creating right now. It is always our time to choose our own adventure, and turning the page from regret is a wise choice indeed.
Award-Winning Author & Wholeness Advocate
Author: Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness — A Memoir of New Beginnings, winner of the 2020 IPA for Body, Mind and Spirit