Regret & the Trauma of Almost

If, like me, you’re a massive Potterhead and you grew up wishing you’d find an owl tapping at your window on your eleventh birthday, then you’re probably also pretty keen to see The Cursed Child on stage  (#keepthesecrets if you’ve seen it please, my tickets are for November).

Now imagine you have those tickets. You’re thrilled. Incredibly so. Butterflies in the stomach excitement. Can’t stop grinning anticipation.

And then you find out you can’t go.

Maybe you’re ill. Maybe you’re just stuck. There’s no way you can see the magic on stage. You almost had it, but you no longer do. Feel the sucker punch, that’s the feeling of regret I want you to anchor for a moment.

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Day-to-day there are a lot of things we almost do that barely bother us when we miss out.

The train leaving just as you arrive, almost forgetting our phone – frustrating though they may be, we’re not going to remember them with any great feeling.

Then there are bigger things like arriving too late for a flight or chickening out of an event even though it could be game-changing. Simple ‘almost’ moments, where you don’t do something, have the power to become the worst case of FOMO you’ve ever had. To become toxic if we let them.

Perhaps you once got to the final stages of an interview for a job you set your heart on. Maybe it was a grad scheme that captured your imagination when you first started out. Maybe it was an opportunity to progress, a promotion, something you worked hard on, kept being told ‘you’re almost there’, but never receive. Maybe it was a new job, something exciting, but you turned it down because they couldn’t offer the right salary or you weren’t sure it was the right move at the time.

Perhaps there’s a person. Maybe you left. Maybe they did. To remember Kate Winslet’s 2001 chart hit “What If” – maybe you wonder what would have happened if you’d stayed, if they’d tried (if you could only turn back time). Failed relationships are often full of almosts – the almosts you never said, the almosts you didn’t act on, the almost apologies you gave but wish you’d meant. Relationships that barely start are similar – how many times have you nearly asked someone out but never let the words out your mouth?

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Many will have heard the saying: “You can’t regret what you didn’t do.”

Embedded in the phrase is an understanding that it’s pointless to regret what you’ve not done, only the things you did. Why? Because you can only learn to live what’s happened and take an education from it. Remorse is one thing (empathy-full and guilt-laden) but regret is quite another.

Yet there exists, unmistakably, a certain trauma that accompanies not doing something.

Missed opportunities, sidelined relationships, abandoned projects, untaken trips. Dreams  once pride of place that are stacked first on shelves, then stashed in boxes, then moved to the attic to gather dust – these are things we regret. It’s a self-absorbed activity but following that train of thought, it’s not long before we start to wonder whether we’ll lay there on our deathbeds and wish we’d stayed in touch with that friend, taken that flight, tried a little harder to finish that novel, business plan, project, course.

Lingering on what almost happened is a fast road to bitterness, cynicism, and self-pity.

Regret, however, can be turned on its head. Self-reflection can help us process, learn, change, find positives in amongst the trauma of almost.

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It may sound naff – like the cheesiest cheese ball – but the thing about ‘regret’ isn’t that it’s backward-looking or that it requires you understand the consequences of your actions. It’s that embracing regret means you’re still evolving as a person.

Often we don’t know what the results of our actions will be until much later. This is why repercussions for chosen behaviours seem more pressing – they’re immediate, tangible. But with ‘almosts’, inaction festers – you can only imagine ‘what if’, daydream about the possible future you denied yourself.

But this trauma of almost is useful. Our minds are cavernous, chaotic places predisposed to anxiety, depressive moods and caprice. But regret, the homunculus lovechild of these mental states, can make us more conscious, aspirational humans – inspiring us to action, to better decisions, to avoiding future ‘almosts.’

Learn to accept it and let it empower you to develop, explore your core values, define how you rise above.

So if a one-night-stand leads to a walk of shame rather than a stride of pride, listen and evaluate. Likewise, if you’re still wishing you’d taken that job instead of sticking where you are, then do an assessment and figure out if the pain of doing nothing is finally enough to motivate change.

Anyway, the point is simple: don’t shy away or ignore the trauma of almost. Instead try to figure out if next time you can take a calculated risk so that you can keep growing. Sure action means you’re taking a path that you can’t take back. What’s done is done. But everyone contains multitudes.

Sylvia Plath wrote one of my favourite passages that ties into my theory of the trauma of almost. It’s the famous fig tree passage. In it, she addresses all of her dreams – how she worries that choosing one direction for her future means she can’t do something else.

Everyday we face an enormous amount of possibilities. The unknownness of what’s to come can make us pause. But let’s not wait for the figs of our trees to wither and blacken because we refused to act.

Let’s encourage our multi-potential lives, accept our almosts, and grow from them.

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