Regret is the only wound from which the soul doesn’t recover.

~~Sara Ban Breathnach

When we think of regret, we think of what went wrong along our life’s path.

We remember the many times we went against our gut instinct and experienced remorse by not following that quiet voice within.

Researchers, Roese and Summerville say, “Opportunity breeds regret.” How can this be?

Opportunity is the ultimate dream. It offers hope for all possibilities, options and fantasy. But the reality is, it can come with a cost if we don’t take action once opportunity arises. Our soul’s path can become seriously detoured or misaligned if we don’t listen to what our inner truth has to say. Scientists agree.

The research is very clear—we don’t necessarily regret what we did try or do, we most regret what we didn’t. Missed opportunity is negatively linked to both physical and emotional outcomes, with strong evidence proving that it leads to anxiety, depression, a deep sense of feeling “stuck” and a chronic longing for what could have been.

Research also shows that regret is highly linked to unpursued educational aspirations, career choices that aren’t fulfilling (even when lucrative) and relationships with partners that weren’t a good fit from the beginning of the union. In each scenario, those surveyed said they knew deep within that early decisions didn’t feel right at the time they made them.

It appears that what torments us most is the constant wonderment about how life could have turned out if only we had chosen differently—chosen what we wish we had at the time.

How is regret related to the health of our soul?

The answer is two-fold: 1) We most regret the things our gut told us to do (or not do) but didn’t follow suite—in other words, we betrayed our soul by not following its request; and 2) In an inspirational way, we can use regret to consciously inform all future choices based on what we learn by not following our soul along the way.

The soul is the essence of who we are. When we go against that quiet (and sometimes screaming!) voice within, we betray ourselves at the deepest level. Author Sara Ban Breathnach says, “Regret is the only wound from which we don’t recover.” In my mind, we’re not supposed to recover from such experiences. Instead, each experience of regret can serve as a motivator to live without it—to live a more soulful life without remorse. What could be better? You will understand how to use regret as a motivator later in the article. First, let me provide some tangible descriptions of events that illustrate how this works.

Throughout the time of the pandemic (including the political strife, changing views of family, friends and coworkers, decisions about both work and leisure as well as how we behaved toward others who didn’t hold the same values about safety precautions), I told clients and colleagues that the best we could do was live with as little regret as possible to get to the end of the uncertain time. I’ve also said for years that I have striven to get to the end of my life with minimal regret because it both motivates me to choose well now as well as holds me accountable to doing my own personal work regardless of circumstances. 

Back in graduate school, I somehow came across a book by Stephen Levine called A Year to Live. I read it while working out on a Stairmaster machine at the student gym. I imagine those around me wondered why I would read such a depressing book but it was actually quite an inspiration. The author worked with terminally ill patients and noted that they lived far better than those without a bad prognosis. He observed that once they realized their time was limited, they lived with far more intention and meaning and seemed to practice much more discernment in how they chose to live out the rest of their lives. While the book wasn’t about regret, it contributed to my understanding of the soul. The book changed my perspective and still nudges me every day to live my best life possible by listening to my inner ally—my soul’s wisdom that never leads me astray.

When life is left undone, we wonder how it would have been different if we followed our gut, which to me, is the voice of our soul. While research is based on measuring the thoughts and experiences of many people, our own conclusions come only from ourselves, making them harder to trust. Most people doubt themselves and/or talk themselves out of something that might be uncomfortable, seem illogical or stretch our limits in some way. We fear outcomes before we know what reality might actually bring. Then we go against what feels right because our thoughts undermine what we are being told from deep within. The volume on our thoughts goes up as we turn down the volume on what our gut is trying to tell us. As a result, our discomfort of change often keeps us from truly living in the direction of our soul path and accumulates even more discomfort as regret builds along the way.

I’ve shared this story before, but it feels important to tell it again because it so clearly illustrates how I learned to listen to my own soul with much more trusting ears (or in this case more acute senses).

I associate my wedding day to the biggest spiritual awakening and most clear understanding of the soul I could ever have. It really had nothing to do with what the man I married said or did to me prior; instead, it had all to do in how I felt just before I walked down the aisle. I dated the man for 5 ½ years prior to the marriage—my first relationship of that length up to that time. We rarely fought and there were only a few seemingly minor things I questioned prior to the marriage. In retrospect, these things were enough to make note of but I didn’t know how to put it all together until shortly after the nuptials took place. Others said I just had the typical cold feet so I didn’t put too much time and energy into figuring out why I felt increasingly uneasy.

However, on the day of the wedding just before I walked down the aisle, I paused with a gut-wrenching feeling invading me from inside. I felt something was wrong but I still felt I was supposed to get married, so I brushed off the feeling and proceeded through the event. The wedding itself was very personal and beautiful, but a few things caught me by surprise. After our vows and photos, we hurried to the reception which was held at a quaint carriage house of a mansion in town. In the rush, my new husband jumped in the car with his brother rather than riding with me. I found this odd, but I hopped in my sister’s car and we just laughed at the situation during the ten minute ride.

A few other odd things happened, including a mix-up with our hotel reservation for the night. We ended up back at my mother’s house eating leftover cookies and watching the video of the wedding. It didn’t seem to be a big deal as we were accustomed to staying at her house, but only in separate beds which turned out to be the case that night as well. Was this irony or another sign from the Universe that something was amiss?

We returned to the state in which we lived, then repacked and left for our honeymoon in St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands. Very quickly, I learned why my gut was telling me to reconsider. My new husband’s behavior changed to verbal and emotional abuse in just a few short days. At one point I literally stood waist deep in the ocean wondering what the hell I had just done. 

In the two years I was married, I learned how much he had kept from me and how masterful he was at manipulating my thoughts and emotions. I had just begun my PhD program, which was stressful enough, but trying to figure out what was happening took some time. Three couple’s therapists later and catching him in a direct and deal-breaking lie was enough to make me end that excruciating time in my life.

Interestingly, part of my healing process included the awareness that my gut—my soul—had tried to warn me all along. That wrenching feeling just before I walked down the aisle was its last-ditch effort to make me go a different way. But I realized I needed that very tough detour in order to awaken to my own inner wisdom—I needed to understand the voice of my soul so I could help others understand their spiritual paths as well. Although I do regret not listening to that voice, I don’t regret learning the lesson by getting married—even if it was the hardest way to learn it.

Regret, then, became my biggest gift. Since, I have learned to listen very closely to the voice within and not only did it lead me back to the right path by leaving the marriage, it also lead me to where I am now—understanding so much more about our soul’s evolution and how difficult experiences happen to help us learn and grow. I look at that experience as a different kind of “school”—one could never have been taught during any of my graduate training. Frankly, that experience and many since then have shown me how the soul influences each and every thought, emotion and behavior.

For that, I have no regret—only deep and enduring gratitude.

I now listen every moment to that inner wisdom because I very much know how powerful the threat of regret is when making decisions. Regret—or the anticipation of what would happen if I didn’t follow my gut—helps me sense the right path for my evolution. This is precisely why I ask so many clients to explore what their gut is telling them about their concerns.

A popular lyric by the musical group One Republic says, “Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.” 

Regret occurs to help us live, not to kill our inner self. It is one of the best teachers within our human condition. If only we stepped back to see that our soul truly does lead us down the right path when given the chance, our lives would become much simpler and easy every step of the way.

There are many aspects to soul-based living, but the most basic question you can ask yourself for any decision in life is “what does my gut tell me to do? The answer is guaranteed to come straight from your soul.

One of my favorite philosophers, Henry David Thorough says, “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”

Living a radiant life requires us to take into account what has taught us along the way, not what mires us most.

How can regret enhance soul-based living for you?

Follow Dr. Katherine T. Kelly, Ph.D., M.S.P.H on YouTube for the latest tips and tricks on how to E.V.O.L.V.E your Soul Health. 

Katherine T. Kelly Ph.D., M.S.P.H.

Katherine T. Kelly Ph.D., M.S.P.H.

With 35+ years of direct clinical experience, Dr. Kelly doesn’t just believe in helping others to heal; instead, her mission is to help them to evolve. Using her own integrative and trademarked framework—the Soul Health Model—Dr. Kelly approaches her work with clients from a “whole person” or “whole organization” perspective. She provides a uniquely progressive, yet down-to-earth approach and is well-known in therapeutic, medical and corporate communities. She thrives as she helps clients and organizations to reach what she calls “conscious evolution” through a variety of self-designed strategies. Her dedication to healing has been widely recognized as she was the recipient of the Provider of the Year Award by the regional Mental Health Association and was nominated as an Incredible Woman for a local community television network, which spotlights role models to inspire young women to pursue their own passions.

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