Can you overcome your regrets and live well?

Shame, guilt and regret can get out of hand and result in deep psychological issues if not dealt with in time.

In a beautiful short story ‘The Cactus’, O Henry writes of the kind of guilt and regret that could cripple someone, particularly when it stems from one’s own pride and arrogance.

Just back from attending the wedding of his beloved with another man, Trysdale is sharing a drink with his friend, the bride’s brother who has arrived from South America, pondering over how and why he lost her. They had never really fought before they drifted apart. One particularly romantic evening, basking in his beloved’s admiration, Trysdale allowed her to believe that he spoke excellent Spanish (a lie!) This was also the evening he asked her to marry him. She promised to respond in a day. The next morning, Trysdale received from her a cactus in a red earthen jar with a foreign-sounding name tag. Receiving no other message and too proud and vain to seek her out, Trysdale took this as a refusal. They met at a party some days later. She looked at him hopefully and getting no response, “turned to snow and ice.” This was how they split.

Now in the present, the bride’s brother points to the cactus and asks Trysdale where he got it from. Immersed in his regretful thoughts, Trysdale says a friend gifted it to him. The brother then delivers the blow! He mentions casually that this cactus was common in South America, and the Spanish name on the tag — ‘Ventomarme’ — in English means “Come and take me.”

I cannot even begin to imagine the depths of regret and sorrow Trysdale must have been plunged into with this revelation! Proud and egotistical, he managed to ruin his life because he couldn’t bend enough to ask his beloved why she had not responded to him. And of course it was vanity that led him to not tell her that he didn’t know any Spanish. With that one white lie, he buried his future with her.

But was it just Trysdale’s fault? What about the woman? Was she not equally culpable? So adoring and worshipful, so willing to believe the best of her man and to place him on a pedestal – and yet, so full of vanity and arrogance herself that she did not even ask him why he did not respond to her message? Why did she not even think once that he may not have understood her subtle message with the cactus? With these traits, both ruined their prospects totally, possibly leading to a lifetime of guilt and regret…

Difference between shame, guilt & regret!

We have all experienced these debilitating emotions at some time or the other. Do you know the difference between shame, guilt, and regret? Shame is what you feel about yourself and how you appear to others. It may or may not be associated with any act. Guilt results from action or even thinking about an action and implies taking responsibility for the harm you may have caused another. Guilt can crush the best amongst us. Regret has been called ‘the poor cousin of guilt’ – it is often due to circumstances beyond your control at that moment.

All these emotions are applicable to the past and come with the overwhelming feeling that you cannot undo whatever happened. Guilt and regret are tough emotions to deal with. You could regret the loss of an opportunity that you let go by, or regret your harsh words to another, or regret an action that harmed another.

The degree of regret varies depending on whether the action was a deliberate or an involuntary one – or even an instance where you should have acted and did not do so. Or whether the action or inaction that causes regret was within your control or not. Sometimes you could even regret something you did out of the goodness of your heart; at others something that was the result of deplorable feelings of pride or ego, such as both Trysdale and his beloved in the story above.

Psychopaths do not feel guilty!

But to feel regret you need a conscience and a certain amount of vulnerability that allows you to empathise with others. That itself is good news. Most killers and criminals are psychopaths are incapable of regretting their actions because they lack empathy. In fact they end up enjoying the act of hurting others. Serial killers are known to keep mementoes that remind them of the thrill of the kill. However let us not go to extreme examples and stick to things normal people regret.

What about you? What do you regret?

Here are some common regrets people experience —

Not living the life you really want to live or with the person you         wanted to live with
Letting go a great career or personal opportunity
Breaking ties with spouse or family.
Not looking after your health
Spending too much time on work at the expense of family
Not being there when needed by friends or family
Not standing up/speaking for yourself
Not having told loved ones how much you care for them

It is important to balance out feelings of guilt and regret before these take away your happiness and motivation and take you to a dark place. To conquer guilt or regret, firstly it is important to accept that you are regretful. Voicing remorse eases pent up emotions. Keeping it bottled up causes more harm than good. It is also important to understand that each of these emotions is there for a reason – to teach you a lesson for the future. Internalise that and move on.

Everyone struggles with guilt and regret – what matters is how you deal with it. Do you think Trysdale was able to overcome his deep regret and go on to live a happy life? Did it teach him to never tell a lie, and not to let pride and ego come in the way of happiness? How about his beloved? Did she ever find out what really went wrong?



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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