Thursday, January 9, 2014

Regrets and Blank Slates

There's a tremendous sense of hope and possibility that comes with a new year; it's seen as an opportunity for a fresh start, an excuse to tread a different path, and a chance to do right the things that we might have done unsatisfactorily last year.  Going by the guiding words and goals and resolutions that lifestyle bloggers have been sharing all over the internet, it looks like there's a lot of optimism about the future being thrown around.

I'm not immune to this, of course; I wrote my own post about a change I hope to make in 2014 to better my relationships with others as well as my relationship with myself.    And optimism, no matter when or why it flares up, is not a bad thing in and of itself. But what I've noticed as I've read post after post welcoming the opportunities brought by the new year is that we all seem to take something we did wrong in the past, talk about how we're going to do it better, and then do our best to forget how it ended up pear-shaped in the first place.

In other words, we use the infinite might of optimism to move forward completely unencumbered by regret.

But I started to wonder, as I read and reread these promises that we make every year to start over and to do it right, why this idea of a blank slate is so important to us.  The rhetoric that surrounds January 1 is absolute, denying us the opportunity to build on the mistakes we've made and the regrets we've accumulated over the past year.  We seem determined to prove how serious we are about improving that we reset the baseline; we have to be better than we are at this moment no matter how we got here.  There are a million stylized quotes on Pinterest reminding us that the future is forward, not behind us, and that the only way to move on is to forget regret (or life is yours to miss, as Mimi sings in Rent).

One of the things I've learned, though, from all of my mistakes and regrets both big and small, is that there's really no such thing as starting fresh - not completely, anyway.  Ignoring why and how we got to where we are is unproductive at best and dangerous at worst.  One of my favorite TED talks, from Kathryn Schulz, includes this on the subject:
I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time, that we should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.  [But] regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.
So I'm not even going to try to wipe the slate clean for 2014.  The regrets we have lead to new resolutions and new hopes.  There's no such thing as "better" without the context of the mistakes we've made, and we forget that everything is relative when we leave the past completely behind us.  We need our regrets in order to know how and why and where we're improving.

I'm going to embed the TED talk here because I think you all might enjoy what she has to say - I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below, if you're comfortable sharing.

"If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best... the point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them."

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  1. I really love this and agree so much with it. One of my goals this year is to spend less junk time on the computer so I can spend more time doing things that are actually productive, and I arrived at that by reflecting on what I've been doing lately. And that's on a very small scale. How can you make a really big life change without using the past as a guiding point? You can't just completely let go of what got you to where you are now. It's ok to say, "Gee I wish I hadn't done that" and use it as a catalyst to not do it again.

  2. I think it's so incredibly hard to NOT want to continuing moving forward, always. We are completely submerged into the culture of go, go, go that when we (finally) stop for even a moment, the guilt begins to pour in.

    At the beginning of last year, I very much had this state of mind. I was going to work my ass off and accomplish ALL OF THE DREAMS! But... it's not what I needed, and my mind/ body made that very, very clear. It's something I wrote about on my blog, but I had to come to terms that I needed to retreat, I needed to heal, I needed to step away from the online world and discover parts of myself that I had been pushing away. (The past - the things I didn't/ couldn't face... it's ALL a part of who we are, and I think we need to learn to LOVE all of those parts...not just the ones we prefer.)

    Now, I enter 2014 very differently. I don't reflect on 2013 and think, "Wow. I didn't do enough." and of course I have goals and dreams that I'm visualizing and ready to tackle in the year ahead... but I also approach it with a lot more compassion. For me, it's not about flushing away what's happened, and it's not even about being this amplified (and at times, somewhat unrealistic) version of myself. It's about honouring where I am RIGHT NOW, tapping into that, being gentle, and easing up on pressure while allowing life to unfold in its divine way.

    A little side bar on mistakes and regrets: bring 'em on. This is a sign that we are progressing, moving forward, and challenging who we are as people. Just because bad things happen doesn't mean that life is negative, it just means that stuff happens. What we do have is the power to choose how we react to it.

  3. When Fredrik and I made our resolutions this year we made them as actions and they were based on what we saw as being missing in the past year(s). My favorite that we did is "learn to relax" and what I meant was take what we had done in the past in the form of say playing cards and not use it as a time filling activity as we have done but use it as a time to relax from other stressors like school and money.

  4. I so agree Betsy! I wrote about this same topic forever it is if you're interested.

  5. ah! thank you for sharing the link - I hadn't read that post before. I love how you say "It's so important to forgive ourselves for our mistakes," similar to Kathryn's Schulz's "The point is to not hate ourselves for having them."

    We have to recognize that having regrets is normal - it isn't a popular idea right now, but it's crucial to accept that because if we don't we'll just end up punishing ourselves over and over. (At least, I would!)

  6. Catalyst - love that word! I just think it's especially important to hold on to that guiding point from the past through and even beyond that life change, because it can be all too easy to go back to the "before" if we forget it.

  7. I really love this. I think you're so right.

  8. Another great one Betsy!
    I believe that the choices we've made, both good and bad, have gotten us to where we are, so I don't see the point of regretting something, it's wasted energy. I can learn from past regrets, but I refuse to dwell on them. x.

  9. I'm more a fan of Sofia Loren's view - "I don't regret the past, because it made me exactly who I am today."


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