I’m going to write three words that is going to make most women between the ages of 30 and 70 squeal with pleasure:
Dr. Brené Brown
If you haven’t checked out this amazing shame researcher-turned TED Talk celebrity-now author of multiple best-selling books-who is warm and real and vulnerable and wicked smart, then I would highly recommend starting with her website and allowing yourself to fall in love.
Point of clarification: just because I identified women in my introductory sentence doesn’t mean Dr. Brown’s work is exclusively for women. Far from it. No matter your gender expression, the odds are that you know shame well and how it manifests inside you. The hissing voice of criticism that seems to get louder and louder at all the wrong times.
Last week, I’m listening to Brené on Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversation podcast and she begins talking about regret. Apparently, she put this out on social last year, but alas, I wasn’t a superfan back then. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook:
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.
To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life. I’m not suggesting that we have to live with regret, but I do think it’s important to allow ourselves to experience and feel it.
One of the truest things I’ve ever heard about regret came from George Saunders’s 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University. He said, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Time out, girl. You’re saying that we SHOULD have regrets? Because there were times in our lives where we could have made a better choice? Treated someone with kindness? Walked away from a situation? Taken action? Said “that’s not acceptable”?
I’ve always viewed regrets more from the FOMO (fear of missing out) frame. You’ll regret if you don’t study abroad! You’ll regret if you don’t take this job opportunity! Often, regrets had to do with major experiences or experiences.
But, it’s the little things that count, right? We talk about that in the positive sense all of the time. Small acts make big impacts. What about the small acts that didn’t lead to someone feeling empowered or seen? What about those times where we elected to be cruel or silent? If we were willing to accept the role of regret, what could we then learn, upon reflection, that would help us make a different decision in a future situation?
Here are two random regrets that came up in my reflection:
#1: When I was in elementary school, I made fun of Jenny Lee. Most kids in our grade did. Why? Jenny Lee was taller than average. I can’t remember if she was perceived as smart. She had a penchant for horses and would pretend to play make believe as a horse during first grade recess.
One day in particular, I must have been extra mean to Jenny Lee because I got my name written on the board. It was May 22, the day before my birthday 7th birthday. My friend Marissa, who was in fact celebrating her birthday that day, also had her name written on the board. I’m sure there were mumbled apologies. I was probably more ashamed at the public record of my bad deeds than the actual hurt I inflicted on Jenny Lee.
Jenny Lee was killed in a car accident a few years later. I never chose to speak with her or build a friendship. I labeled her as a weirdo and left her on the bench with the rest of my classmates deemed untouchable and unpopular.
Why did I choose to follow the crowd? Why did I feel the need to make fun of her in the first place? How did her presence threaten me? It didn’t. She was just a kid trying to navigate her way through growing up. I didn’t know anything about her family or the world she hailed from. All I knew was the others had deemed her different. And I needed to remind her of that on May 22, 1991.
#2: There was a boy in my 7th grade P.E. class, Jamorial. He sat behind me in our assigned grid-like pattern on the gym floor (or on the outdoor basketball courts when the weather cooperated…which was like every freaking day in Phoenix). Jamorial was probably the only Black kid at my middle school. (Ugh, talk about regret: I can’t even tell you whether we had more than one Black student at my junior high? Needless to say, I attended White-majority schools throughout primary education).
Jamorial was small for his age, if that’s a real thing. He had ashy knees (I even have regret typing this). He just wanted someone to talk to as we sat baking under the 90+ degree sun during final period. Sometimes I decided to be nice. But, I more often chose to whisper about him behind his back, commenting on his weirdness to my friend Amanda. I teased her that he had a crush on her and wanted to marry her and all of the juvenile patter that runs of our mouths.
I’m sorry, Jamorial, for being racist and further ostracizing a young man of color who had to ensure the unimaginable in our school. I don’t even know if you finished at Mountain Sky or went elsewhere. I’m not even sure to this day I am spelling your name right. I’m sorry I never took the time to learn.
There isn’t enough time to list all of my regrets. Or yours. Definitely not time to list yours, assuming you are willing to have regrets as well. Heck, I regretted something I did yesterday. I decided to air my grievances with one individual in front of many (who DOES that?!) when I could have made the more respectful, compassionate choice of talking with that individual one-on-one later.
Apologies, if able to give, are part of this empathy/regret relationship. Not only extending sympathy to the inflicted party but also to yourself. Y’all, we’re human! We screw up. Constantly. Putting feet in mouths or fingers in eyes or whatever other strange bodily metaphors we devise to describe our continual ability to make mistakes.
Regrets, I got ’em. Or, better yet, the photo used in Dr. Brown’s post: