Forget regret (is a silly philosophy)

Published on March 26, 2014 by      Print
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By Trish Tillman

spiritual than youI’ve noticed a rather concerning recent trend in the literature of pop-spirituality. Writers will speak of some questionable, possibly damaging decision they made in the past, and then say something like, “I don’t regret it, because I’ve made it a practice not to regret anything. Besides, my action was a manifestation of who I was at the time.” This kind of blasé “it’s all good” attitude is an extension of the pop-spirituality community’s aversion to saying that anything at all is bad—except for, maybe, not being a member of the pop-spirituality community.

This mentality makes me feel really, really uncomfortable.

I will illustrate why with a very small example. If you had procured a fake ID when you were sixteen and gotten a hideous, poorly executed Tweety Bird tattoo on your ankle, would present-day (now more mature and tasteful) you gaze at it with pride, as a memento of who you once were? No, you would have already gotten it covered up with better art or removed by a guy with a big laser. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t want to claim all the things we’ve said, music we’ve listened to, outfits we’ve worn, or people we’ve kissed in the past as aspects of ourselves in the present that still define us. Saying that you must, under any circumstances, feel positively about what you did in the past chains you to that past self.

My own mind jumps to my dumbass nineteen-year-old self, with bad skin on her chin from late-night fast-food runs and way too much makeup on her face. I was laboring under the illusion, at the time, that the proper way to put on makeup is to go for VOLUME. I have a lot of compassion for my nineteen-year-old self, and even find her endearing in certain ways. I was so incredibly naïve, and so desperate to prove that I was worldly and self-assured. Nonetheless, my first feeling when I look back is one of gratitude that I’m not still her, and not a fist bump to my college-age self for her cigarette-smoking, last-minute-assignment-completing ways.

“But this is so judgmental,” some might protest. “You don’t want people to go through life feeling bad about themselves, do you?”

I don’t. But I also want a life philosophy that allows for the possibility of real change, growth, and transformation. When we regret something, we redefine ourselves, in a way, by saying that we won’t (or at least that we shouldn’t) do the same thing in the future. People do change, sometimes quite dramatically.

Of course, I’m not advocating that people should beat themselves up over the things they’ve done, or focus obsessively on the past. But small amounts of regret can be very healthy.

The positive value of regret has actually been documented. The pioneering French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in his 1897 study on suicide rates in Europe, found that Catholic countries had a lower suicide rate than non-Catholic countries. He hypothesized that one reason for this was because Catholics benefited from the practice of confession: believers would acknowledge their sins to a priest, be granted absolution, and go on with their lives. In non-Catholic countries, on the other hand, individuals had no psychological mechanism for appropriating their past bad deeds or mistakes.

The philosophy of “forget regret” seems merciful at first glance, but is actually cruel.

Like the vapid adage “everything is for the best,” famously pilloried by Voltaire in his satire Candide, “forget regret” forces us to accept all the bad things done by us or to us in the name of some vaguely conceived, but not fully explained benevolent drift of the cosmos.

It’s true, a seeming mistake or misfortune can often turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but that doesn’t alter the fact that certain actions, viewed objectively at the time they were carried out, were bad choices. Furthermore, some events are positively tragic. Voltaire was partly inspired to write Candide after reading accounts of the horrific Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Contemplating the death toll of at least 40,000 people, he found the smug dismissiveness of “everything happens for the best” revolting.

The idea that mistakes and tragedies are part of some overarching plan is philosophically offensive. As Harold S. Kushner said in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Religious commitment to the supreme value of an individual life makes it hard for me to accept an answer that is not scandalized by an innocent person’s pain.”

The desire to acknowledge evil in the world is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Paradoxically, by saying that an event or action was evil, we are also empowered to move past it.

When we are in pain because of something that happened to us, or full of regret over something we did, forcing ourselves to put on a happy face about it feels like adding insult to injury. Wouldn’t it be more (dare I use the term) authentic to simply say, “Something bad happened. I eventually learned from it and moved on. But boy, did it suck at the time.”

Trish TillmanAbout Trish Tillman

Trish Tillman is an adjunct professor of history, grad student, yoga teacher, and Gracie Jiu Jitsu  purple belt in the Washington, DC metro area. She was nicknamed “Hateful Trish” by her jiu jitsu teammates, but is, generally, fairly good-natured while off the jiu jitsu mats. Check out more of her thoughts at

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  1. Louis says:

    I offer a third option to your forget or regret scenarios by way of the following two quotes:

    When pleasure or pain comes to them, the wise feel above pleasure and pain.

    There is nothing either good or bad. Thinking makes it so.
    Shakespeare, Hamlet

    • Desmond says:

      To this I would say Louis: Try not to feel, try not to think. Try to not feel pleasure or pain, or feel “above it” (whatever that means!). How does that work out?

  2. Trish Tillman says:

    Hi Louis!

    I’ve thought about this issue a lot. It seems to me like changing one’s perspective, as the second quote implies, works well as a tool in one’s personal life for dealing with normal setbacks, challenges, and basically first world problems.

    The “thinking makes it so” idea collapses when you try to make it a universal principle, however. I study twentieth-century history, and there’s a lot in there that I would not dare to characterize in any other way than “bad” or “evil.” In fact, everyone has a line they draw somewhere, and everyone considers certain things objectively wrong.

    As to the quote from the Buddha, I’m not at that level yet :D

  3. Nicole says:

    Great article! I totally agree.

  4. Johannes Climacus says:

    In defense of the “best of all possible worlds” thing, if you read Leibniz’s philosophical works (Monadology) you’ll understand better why he thought that and you’ll realise that it’s totally awesome.

  5. sarah says:

    Thank you for this blog. I am not sure it is still going on. I am going to write a rather LONG response as am in 100% AGREEMENT with you and would like to start up a blog (more community) once i find the time. I am a position to do so as I am a licensed psychotherapist and owned a yoga studio and I am a yoga teacher in a small canadian City. I will not “name names’ but I am hoping to live a SPIRITUAL life and follow the Niyamas and Yamas. I have been bullied and frankly traumatized by the yoga community in my city. I lived in new york city for 16 years and I know that there was “in breeding” in New York but not to this extent.

    I believe what you are talking about is taking RESPONSIBILITY for our actions and having INTEGRITY and also making AMENDS. This is all part of the yogic teachings and it is extremely dismissive and morally irresponsible for anyone to do something unkind or inconsiderate above the age of 25, and NOT OWN UP TO IT AT ALL. this is all part of denial , repression and the “BLISS NINNY” movement as my 80 year old mother calls it.

    My professional work is all about owning our shadow and our dark side, this is also a large part of the yoga philosophy. I honestly believe that most likely only 5% of all people in the west who practice yoga do this challenging inner work. it is called contemplation and reflection. This and only this can lead to transformation on any level.

    I have an example: I owned a small yoga studio from 2010-2010. I had a “friend” named J. who was my marketing director and also we did hang out. She loved yoga but she told me several times that she would NEVER open a studio. She lived in another part of town and I generously told her I WOULD SUPPORT HER anytime if she opened a studio on the other side of town and we would both be successful. She said she did not want this., ever. She would continually show me blogs from another studio owner, D. that were destructive and bullying. I was a bit surprised as i was not reading yoga blogs at the time. J. said she wanted our studio to be spiritual and unlike any other. She talked the talk. About 1.5 years into it another studio owner called for a “meeting” of 4 studio owners in town to STOP using GROUPON because it “devalued” yoga in her words. We had several emails about this topic. We all agreed to not use group on anymore as studio owners and to keep prices reasonable. only 1 month later, this person (sorry there are 3 yogis here) put in ad in the pAPER FOR ONE DOLLAR FOR 10 YOGA classes. most all of my students left my studio to take advantage of this deal – yes, some did come back etc. but it was a mean spirited business ploy. My marketing director J. did NOTHING and did not get it at all and had NO compassion when I showed distress at having to let go of 2 teachers and thoughts of closing down. I showed her the letters and agreements and she BRUSHED IT OFF. Not only that but J. eventually left my business and OPENED A YOGA STUDIO a month later and now OWNS a studio with D. the very person that she badmouthed. This is so insidious and over the top, more like a Television show. I tried to talk to J. years later and she flew into a defensive rage and said “That was 2 years ago! I have moved on!!!” She said she felt no “Shame” at going into business with someone she had open contempt for and for not helping to restore my business. What? Is this yoga? Is this friendship? There was no pause, no reflection, just flat out anger and dismissal on her part. I also wrote to the person who played the 1 dollar yoga SCAM sending her emails to commit to an agreement with 4 other studios. She too got into a rage and dismissed it!

    I ended up closing my studio and not engaging for 2 years. These people CONTINUE ON with their empty Narcissistic “lessons” for students teaching “Satya, Aparighaha, etc” while back stabbing anyone who gets in their way. It gets worse but I do not have time to write everything about the yOGA MAFIA.

    I am not a victim and my life is good but I will NOT sit back and say nothing about this nonsense. We need a community of yogis that are CONSCIOUS and take full responsibility for what they have done and attempt to get the lessons. We are allowing a bully culture in yoga.
    There are very few who stand up to the nonsense. If the students called them OUT ON IT it would stop since they are motivated by money. If the yoga teachers simply REFUSED to work at studios whereby the owner BLOGS openly about others, it would work. We have to have a voice.

    This is not selling used cars. It is YOGA. I will eventually start up a blog but if anyone has similar stories kindly share.

    We cannot judge but it is BEYOND judgement. It is standing by on the sidelines letting all sort s of bullying, demeaning and toxic behaviour go unnoticed. BTW: D’s studio is the most “successfuL ” in our town as no now pays ANY ATTENTION. It is like Nazi Germany on a very small scale.

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