What to do with regrets in your memoir

by Jerry Waxler

When I remember my life, sometimes I get hot flashes when I stumble on things that make me feel stupid , things I wish had never happened. Regrets can be so uncomfortable they sometimes make me want to run away from my memories altogether. If you feel your regrets are interfering with your desire to write, you have company. We’re in it together. We all have regrets of varying degrees of intensity burning away in our past. And so, even though your regrets are uncomfortable, they offer another lovely benefit to writing your memoir. You will gain a deeper understanding not only into your own mind, but into the inner workings of everyone you know.

This is one of my favorite things about writing memoirs. It brings you face to face with the human story. Yes, it’s true that you can only directly see the one human story that you happen to have lived. But through this laboratory experiment you can learn so much about what makes people tick.

To explain how to use regret to go deeper into your very human condition, I’d like to offer an example, but this is as hard for me to talk about as it is for anyone. For the sake of explaining this idea, I’ll overcome my self loathing and admit that when I was little, I took some coins out of my older brother’s drawer. It was stealing, and there it is, like a zit on my memory, making me feel like a thief, making me feel like less of a person than I aspire to be. Now let’s look at the variety of options available to me as I tiptoe around my initial reluctance to even admit it ever happened.

Even though I’m embarrassed, I could just tell the story. That way, I get it off my chest. And I hope that people reading about it will assume I was just a normal kid. That’s exactly my attitude towards other people who tell about their childhood transgressions. Why shouldn’t they feel that way about me?

Once I’ve written about the incident, I can think it through. Why did I do it? What was I thinking? How did my actions affect other people? What did I wish I could have told people, or how could I have paid for the crime? My brother was probably hurt and felt a little less safe with his stuff. I learned from my experiment in dishonesty that when I stole things I felt bad. That was part of my training as a young man.

After writing it and thinking about it, I could delete it. There’s no rule that says I have to make public every darn thing that happened to me. If I don’t like the way it looks on paper, I could delete it and move on.

I am the writer, and this gives me enormous flexibility to soften the impact of the incident with phrasing and positioning. When I first stole those coins, I felt terrible guilt. I was betraying my older brother. If I downplay the guilt, and look closely at the human elements, I find that all those big emotions, the sense of betrayal, fear, and guilt, flooded me as a child, but don’t sound like such a big deal now. When I look back, the act itself was almost ludicrously simple. Once he found out, I gave the money back. All that remained were my miserable feelings.

In the process of writing, insights creep into your story. You are applying today’s wisdom to help you explain actions from the past, and in the process, the regrets lose some of their power. You don’t feel like such a miserable cad. Veils of regret lift and you see the incident more clearly. If you want to learn more about your self, you can even use these intense moments as beacons, lighting your way into the interior of your psyche. As you unravel the impact of one, it will lead you to other glimpses into the dynamics of your past.

Look for other examples when that particular power expressed itself. If you stole something, talk about your guilt, about owning stuff, about how stealing was so important it made it into the top ten commandments. Talk about how you hated it when someone stole something from you. Talk about the tension and confusion you felt as a little boy, unsure of your role, unsure of yourself, and how money represented power, and how the coins you stole weren’t just any coins. They were steel pennies your brother had collected from the cash drawer at dad’s drugstore. Coin collecting was a special bond your brother shared with dad and you were too young to get into the club. If you took a few of those coins, perhaps you’d get some of the love.

What if you’re not sure whether to write it or not? Be careful, and take your time. Once it’s out on paper, you can never retract it. Bill Clinton stated publicly that he never inhaled marijuana. Since marijuana was illegal, it was his choice not to admit he had broken the law. Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart. Admitting his flaw probably improved his public image, showing him as a real human being. But notice that having made these statements, there they are in the public record forever.

If you’ve written about your regrets, you’ve already benefited by thinking them through, seeing nuances, and trying to understand the implications. The increased richness of your memories now belongs to you. And like a pin hole in a balloon, you’ll come back later and find that much of the tension from the old emotions has been deflated. It loses its hold on you. Now it’s just a story. Perhaps some time in the future, you’ll find a perfect time to share it, where fits in with something you are trying to illustrate.

If remembering this experience continues to feel damaging, talk to a therapist and see if you can work it out with help. Regrets are like heavy weights. By letting them go, you can live more fully and energetically today.

One thought on “What to do with regrets in your memoir

  1. This is very helpful. I needed to hear the part about being able to write without showing anyone.

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