How to reframe your relationship with regret – and why you should

Photo credit: Duane Prokop - Getty Images
Photo credit: Duane Prokop - Getty Images

Regret can come to us in short, sharp twangs, or it can overwhelm us and linger over everything we do. It can be small: "Why did I wait until the last minute to pack my suitcase?" It can be big: "Why didn't I take that new job when I had the chance?" It can be profound: "Why didn't I tell my father I loved him before he passed away?" Often, our regrets run laps around our minds and haunt our dreams.

By definition, regrets keep us living in the past, where the choices have already been made – or not made. If we'd just started trying for a baby earlier. If only we'd said "yes" instead of "no". If we'd just taken the thorny road, instead of the well-beaten path. We regret the decisions we made; the mistakes that led to resentment or disappointment. And, perhaps even worse, we regret the choices we didn't make; the opportunities for love and purpose that we missed because we were too afraid to try.

Regret, in some form, is a defining force in all of our lives – but does it have to be that way? Can we leave behind the regrets that follow us? And what must we change in the present to avoid regret in the future? Who better to answer these questions than the queen of tearing up the rule book: author, activist and speaker Glennon Doyle.

After battling with addiction throughout her youth, Doyle’s first memoir, Carry On, Warrior, was championed by Oprah, planting her firmly as a guru for vulnerability and living fearlessly. But after publishing her second memoir, Love Warrior, in 2016 – a story of rebuilding her marriage with her husband Craig, grounded in her Christian values – her life flipped upside down. She fell in love with a woman, former Olympic football player Abby Wambach, and lit a match under the life she’d known. The memoir that followed – Untamed, published in 2020 – was read by more than two million people, and encouraged readers around the globe to abandon their pre-destined scripts, listen to their inner ‘knowing’ and build the lives they’ve always dreamed of. And now, Doyle has released Get Untamed: The Journal, a workbook to guide us through the process of becoming untamed, step by step.

"I am shameless and regret-less," Doyle laughs when we meet over Zoom. I wanted to know how we can all absorb some of that positivity, and here is what she said:

How would you define regret?

"It’s looking back on the past and thinking, ‘I wish I had been braver.’ We all have two selves. We have the representative self, who we send out into the world – they’re staying on script and staying in character. Then we have this inner self, which I would call the ‘untamed self’. When we make decisions from the representative self, it’s always because we’re trying to stay safe. But we have this inner self that’s always yelling, ‘I want more! I want different!’ And I think this leads to a life that’s filled with regret."

How has regret formed your life?

"Well, I think I only lived in regret for a long time because of addiction. What began as an addiction to food when I was 10 years old, in the form of bulimia, became alcoholism and drugs – and I guess addiction is a hiding place. If you’re hiding, you’re not showing up and being brave. I mean, I don’t know what I was doing or whose life I was living. I didn’t have any sense of self or centre. In some ways, thank god for blackouts – maybe one of the reasons I’m regret-less is because I don’t have a clue what I did for 20 years! Although, every once in a while, someone will tell me something I did and I’ll think,‘Damn’. But I will say that, even though I hurt so many people, even though I was lost for so long, even though I sure as hell wasn’t living brave... I don’t regret any of that. Because if you live in a freezing cold place your whole life and you suddenly feel the sun, you will appreciate it so much more. The sun, for you, will always be magic. I think that’s why Abby and I walk around stupidly giddy all day, because it’s like the sun after the cold."

So many people have regrets about ‘wasted time’; what would you say to that?

"The idea of ‘wasted time’ doesn’t make any sense. If you define love as only worthy if it lasts for ever, then I guess you would have regret. But I think that’s insane. I think that love is worthy if it teaches us something or changes us. There are some loves that are perennial – they come back to life over and over again. And there are some that just die and go back into the soil. But then that love becomes part of everything else you are – it becomes part of the next one. None of it is wasted. I don’t think any love, any experience – even my decade as an alcoholic, or my first marriage – none of that was wasted. It’s all part of who I am."

Do you think it’s ever possible to live without regret for the things we’ve done, or should we accept that it’s a part of life?

"We have to define it differently. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes; I’ve lived almost only making mistakes. But it depends on how you think life is supposed to go. I think life is about trying everything. Michelangelo said that, in creating his sculptures, he would chip away at everything the sculpture is not in order to find out what it is. That’s how I think about life. I’m constantly trying things to get to the point where I’m like, ‘No, not this,’ so I can narrow down what it is. That’s how I figured out my queerness and my faith. I tried all the other things and that led me to where I am now. So how can I regret that?"

Photo credit: Astrid Stawiarz - Getty Images
Photo credit: Astrid Stawiarz - Getty Images

Many of us hold on to guilt about the 'bad' decisions we made. How can we free ourselves from these kinds of regrets?

"In retrospect, we might consider these ‘bad decisions’, but our consciousness changes. So the person who says, ‘Oh my god, I sent my kid to that place and they ended up getting hurt,’ is judging their past self by the knowledge they have now. It’s the same with how we call out misogyny and toxicity – new feminists might judge themselves from a decade ago, with this fierce eyes-wide-open consciousness. But if we apply our current consciousness to the past, we’ll always live in regret. We have to stop judging our past selves by what we know now. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’"

How can we break through this negative thought process of regret?

"Regret is essentially like retroactive anxiety. Anxiety is like, ‘What the hell is going to happen in the future?’ and regret is like, ‘What the hell happened in the past?’ You don’t have any control over either of them. Anxiety is the ‘what if’ and regret is the ‘what was’, and the only way you can get out of it is to come back to the ‘what is’. For me, that’s always about the senses. What can I smell? What can I see? What can I feel? What can I taste?Anything that can take me out of the past or future, where it’s chaos. In the moments when I come back to my senses, it has always been okay. There’s no solution for what’s happened or what’s going to happen, except for coming back to the here and now."

Many of us have regrets for the things we don’t do. How can we cope with this kind of remorse?

"See, this is the kind of regret I identify with. Never trying for real love or never trying for real purpose – they’re deathbed regrets. I don’t imagine anyone’s on their deathbed saying: ‘Oh god, I shouldn’t have applied for that job,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t have tried to have that deep healing conversation with my mother.’ It has to be, ‘I didn’t try. I didn’t show up in the world as my full self.’ This is the kind of regret I try to avoid. And the only way to do that is by living by your untamed self, not your representative self. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to divorce their husband and marry a female Olympian (although – highly recommend). Living untamed means going off-script when someone asks, ‘How are you?’ Instead of saying, ‘I’m fine,’ you say,‘I’m lonely,’ or, ‘I’m scared about what’s next.’ It’s in these moments of realness.

"When you say or do something real, that slowly builds into this bigger thing where you’re trusting your real self. Then, because of these teeny moments, you’ll know what to do in the bigger ones. The antithesis of regret is integrity, meaning your insides and your outsides are integrated. On the outside, you’re saying, living and doing what your insides are saying, yearning for, wanting and believing. I think if we’re matched up, we can’t ever live with regret. S**t will still be happening, we’ll still be annoying people and we’ll still be falling on our butts, but we’ll have shown up as our real selves."

How can we reckon with the regret that we could have always taken a different path?

"Abby had often expressed sadness for having missed the kids’ baby years, for not experiencing that bonding and deep love from the start. But a few nights ago, we were playing a game with the family where we pick a question and everyone is supposed to tell the truth. Our 15-year-old, Tish, picked the card that said: ‘Who in your life has taught you the most about love?’ I got ready for her to say me and to list all the reasons. But then she said, ‘Abby. Because Mum and Dad had to love me, it was mandatory. But Abby showed up and chose to love us.’ You see, Abby had been regretting this alternate life where she thought the love would be deeper and more real if she’d been there from the beginning, and here was the child telling her that the love is deep and real because she wasn’t there since the beginning. Yes, there are a million other ways you could have gone, and yes, you missed the things that weren’t on your path. But when you think about all the blessings you’ve missed, you are missing all the blessings that are here because you went this way."

Photo credit: Duane Prokop - Getty Images
Photo credit: Duane Prokop - Getty Images

Can regret ever be a force for good?

"The biggest regrets in my life are the times when I haven’t stood with someone when I should have. When I didn’t speak up. But I remember what it feels like not to do it. I know what that regret feels like, and I don’t want to feel it again. So now I show up for people in a way that I didn’t before. Our regrets can make us braver. I read a quote somewhere that said, ‘Brave is doing the hard or scary thing, but so is stupidity. So how do you know the difference? How do you know whether it’s brave or just stupid?’

"And I think the answer is just trial and error. If you have something inside you that’s saying, ‘Is this weird? Is this going to freak everybody out? Is this stupid?’ it probably means it’s going to create some kind of magic."

This piece originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Red Magazine.

Get Untamed: The Journal (Vermilion) by Glennon Doyle is out now

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