“I never told him I felt badly for betraying his confidence.”

“I wish I’d told my mom my side of the story.”

“I wanted to say I was sorry, but didn’t know how.”

“If only I’d supported my friend when she spoke up about how disrespectfully the committee was treating her.”

Regrets — we all have them, for one reason or another — avoiding difficult conversations, deferring addressing a problem, a misunderstanding that festers for a while, yet seemingly is diminished by time and collusion. Then one day, it could be too late. We’ve missed the opportunity to put things right, to say what we really should have, wanted to, but didn’t ... perhaps the other person is gone, either moved or passed away, leaving us ruminating about the conversations we wish we’d had.

For some, there’s the “unfinished business” of telling a parent at his or her bedside their honest feelings, maybe offering forgiveness or simply saying goodbye. The compelling need for closure was lost — with stubbornness, or fear of conflict, or anxiety about having withheld important information. Whatever the reason for the unspoken conversation after someone passes away, it leaves an indelible scar on the heart. “If only I had told him it wasn’t his fault, that I had been the one....” or “I wish I had forgiven him before he passed away....” or “I never knew my family had that secret....” or “I deeply regret being so bitter that I wouldn’t attend that reunion....” and so on. We might remain quiet rather than honestly telling a friend or family member how we feel about something, especially if expressing those feelings might create discord. Perhaps we experience shame, guilt, anxiety about speaking our truth, advocating for ourselves.

Something similar happens when we wish we had supported another — a friend, a colleague, who perhaps assertively spoke up at a meeting, or at a social gathering, yet we held back. By doing so, our silent support isn’t heard, we lose our voice. There are times we might want to validate someone’s opinion, a struggle, a challenge consuming considerable energy, yet we refrain from doing so. What gets in the way? Perhaps it’s simply timing, or we make the assumption it “goes without saying.” However, it’s never too late to celebrate someone’s accomplishment, validating their success. The words may seem unnecessary, possibly the importance of the achievement later diminished, yet the validation will always be appreciated.

What causes us to miss important opportunities to speak up: whether to resolve a lingering conflict, to say something important in providing closure before a family member or friend passes away, or simply to show our support when someone we care about needs that? These are just a few of the unspoken conversations, the missed opportunities. Choosing to speak up likely has its roots in childhood; when children aren’t allowed to speak freely about their feelings, unhealthy behavior usually develops. This often manifests in bullying, starting with playmates in the park or peers at school, evolving into chronic “bullying” in adulthood. Thus, a 5-year-old child whose crayons are snatched away or a 12-year-old who succumbs to peer pressure may fail to express himself simply because he has never learned how to make his needs heard without stepping on others to do so.

Children learn from their families and in their social environments how to express feelings. Some understand quite well how to speak up for themselves yet choose instead to be aggressive. In many situations, boys learn that anything other than physical force is a sign of weakness. Then other children worry that expressing honest feelings will drive their friends away, thus choosing to say nothing. This attitude is particularly common in adolescent girls, because they are raised to be polite, deferential, leading them often to feel guilty about speaking up, openly voicing their ideas, their honest opinions. A child is more inclined to express his/her needs and views if he/she has a strong, healthy self-image. Teaching our children to be assertive, which is different from being aggressive, supports them in developing strong communication skills and the confidence to speak up. It’s less likely they’ll grow up to miss those opportunities to voice how they feel.

No matter how confident children or adults are, there will eventually be a time we’ll face a hostile adversary who prefers to intimidate, posture, patronize, rather than reason. When this happens, it helps to frame this person’s behavior with the question: “I wonder what happened to him/her in his/her childhood?” Mastering the tough skill of expressing our needs and preferences clearly and firmly so that others don’t take advantage of us is at the root of overcoming our avoidant behavior. We certainly don’t want to miss an important opportunity to speak up, to express our feelings, to resolve a conflict, to validate someone’s good work, or to advocate for someone taking a strong stand with whom we agree.

“Regrets for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” — Sydney J. Harris

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