what a cardiac ablation taught me about regret

Two weeks ago my husband had a Cardiac Ablation. Sounds pretty intense, huh? This is actually a minor procedure performed under local anaesthetic. It involves catheters going up to the heart through a major vein accessed via the groin and it corrects structural faults that cause arrhythmias.

So the day arrived and we weren’t sure if it was going to go ahead (another story). When my husband got off the phone with the hospital he came into our office where I was sat at the computer. He told me it was happening and suddenly my emotions were at war with my rational brain.

“It’s just minor procedure.”

But it’s on his heart!!”

“Don’t overreact, he doesn’t even have to stay in overnight!”

“But, you obviously don’t understand, it’s happening to his actual heart.”

“They do this all the time. It’s about as serious as having a toenail removed.”

“I know. But, sometimes things go wrong and… IT’S HIS HEART!!!”

He knelt down beside me and hugged me and I must confess, some moisture did escape my eyes. I felt bad he was going there alone (though I knew it was unnecessary for me to be there). I felt vulnerable that I wouldn’t know what was going on, I would just have to wait. It could take one to four hours to do the actual procedure and who knows how long he’d be waiting to go down for it. I could hear nothing for hours. And hours.

The whole experience got me thinking about regret. Why? Because the whole morning I recognised this self-analysis that was going on internally:

If the worst happens, will I regret this moment? These words? This use of my time?

In the end, we were a bit late as I took a wrong turning and we got stuck in a busy intersection with temporary traffic lights in place. I had to hurry back to get my daughter from preschool and the hospital was in a different town.

If things went wrong, would I live to regret that wrong turning that stole time from our goodbye? Would I live to regret faffing around and leaving later due to making us both a flask of tea for the journey, which wasn’t even that long? Would I regret not having told this person, or that person, in advance that it was taking place?

This must all sound rather dramatic. In fact, a complete and utter overreaction. However, I must remind you that this is all going on in my head in, at most, a fleeting thought. Perhaps it was more of a vague feeling that I have since been able to articulate into the above melodramatic questions.

During the days since I pondered all this and was left wondering: was it a good thing to be so hyper-aware of the potential for regret and to try to avoid it at all costs? What is the impact of living like that?

I listened to Kathryn Schultz’s talk about regret and was interested to hear that never feeling regret is a characteristic of a sociopath. That’s right – to be a normal, functioning, humane human you will, and should, feel regret.

Yet, as Kathryn points out, we tend to live as I did in the above situation. We live in such a way so as to avoid regret at all costs. We take no risks. We are super nice to everyone and reluctant to give our opinion or truly be ourselves so vulnerability takes a back seat. We spend ages re-reading and checking an email to ensure it is sent to the right person and couldn’t possibly be misconstrued.

Or we give no heed to it and pride ourselves on making a choice not to have regrets, no matter what happens and who we’ve hurt, including ourselves. We are careless. We don’t reflect, or repent, and therefore rarely learn how to be better people.

How should we handle regret? Here’s my two-pence-worth…

What we need to know about regret:

  1. It is inevitable

Show me a perfect human and I will show you a life without regret. You knew I was going to say that. The main problem is sometimes we regret decisions we made with the best intentions. Or decisions we made when ill-informed. It isn’t just about our own imperfections. It’s about the imperfections of others too.

“I regret marrying them. They changed. They hurt me. They made a mistake.”

“I regret taking this job. It isn’t what they advertised it to be.”

“I regret buying this car. It’s broken down straight away and needs more work than it’s worth.”

Everything in this world has a shelf-life. Everything can be faulty. Everything can lead to disappointment and therefore, regret.

  1. It is painful

Some regret is easy to swallow. It can be easy to excuse our own mistake or bad judgement when the impact is minimal. Or someone else’s mistake or bad judgement. But some decisions we make have far-reaching consequences on our health, our future, even life itself. Or that of others.

It simply hurts like hell sometimes.

What we need to do about regret:

  1. Learn to face it, feel it and accept it

Kathryn says we can gain comfort from the universality of regret. I think there’s real truth in that. This is often why we need to verbalise how we feel when we are struggling. There is great power and relief in the listener simply saying:

“I understand. It makes sense that you feel that way.”

Part of the anxiety we feel can stem from worrying that we are the only one who feels it. That we are weak and pathetic. So, we feel worse.

You are not and will not be the only person to feel regret. It is not a sign of weakness or a wasted life. You need to feel it to come through it well and, most importantly, in order to learn from it.

  1. Forgive yourself

Where we can go wrong is to go one step further than feeling it. We can dwell on it. I am terrible for going over and over a situation in my mind, playing it out how it actually happened and how it could have happened if only…

The day before my dad died we moved house. He had been in hospital for a week and was very poorly but not unconscious all the time so knew we were there. Between me, my siblings and his partner we made sure he was never alone. But the day we moved, I didn’t go. We didn’t expect his death despite knowing how poorly he was. We were ever hopeful. I could have gone to visit him in the evening once the actual moving was done but I was completely exhausted. He had had an OK day with no deterioration or distress.

So I didn’t go and the next time I saw him he had gone. This was one of the first things I thought about in the moments after. As the waves of shock and grief first hit. I wish I had gone.

I could tell you how I reasoned it out. I could tell you why it was OK. But it doesn’t matter. If I could go back, of course, I would go. However, I am grateful for the fact that I was able to let it go quickly and get on with grieving. I was grateful that I knew my Dad KNEW I loved him. That he knew I had been there for him as much as I could.

Some situations are made all the more painful by the fact that someone may not forgive you. That the relationship was not good. All I can say is, you have permission to forgive yourself for what, if anything, you could have done better. You are and can only be responsible for your choices. You cannot control the choices of others and sometimes have to accept that the only way you can reach absolution is by the forgiveness you can offer yourself.

We all need to and all have the right to accept our flaws and forgive ourselves. When you forgive, the sting of regret will pass and you can truly move on with your life.

  1. Say sorry

Regret can often be a signal that you need to acknowledge your flaws to another human being. Yes, you need to say the ‘S’ word. Even if the person is not around to hear it, it can be a helpful exercise.

So, I have since concluded that the bereavements I have experienced in my life have caused me to be intentional about my relationships. To keep short accounts with people I love so that when I say bye to them I know that they KNOW I love them. I don’t let the sun go down on an argument with my spouse and I am quick to say sorry (once I have been persuaded I have made a mistake – working on that).

Is it bad to live like that? Of course not. The reality of regret has taught me a valuable lesson in this case. But we still have disagreements. We still go about our ordinary lives without fretting that we’ve used every moment in the best way and always made the best decision first time around (also working on that too). The one regret I don’t want to have is not ever showing anyone my true self.

I will leave you with this quote from Kathryn’s talk, which is worth listening to:

Here’s the thing, if we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.

The lesson that I ultimately learned from my tattoo and that I want to leave you with today is this: We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.

– Kathryn Schultz, “Don’t Regret Regret”, TED Salon NY, November 2011, https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_don_t_regret_regret/transcript?language=en

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