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Regrets. We all have them. I have some real doozies in my volunteer engagement career, and I’ve read plenty of advice about how to deal with regrets, including the advice to “let go.”

I don’t know about you, but letting go is not that simple. I still am disappointed at some of my bone-headed mistakes, especially the ones I made, knowing that I shouldn’t have. Those are the tough ones to swallow. (cause, shhhhh, we’re not perfect)

I’m thinking of the time I no-showed a volunteer’s funeral, the volunteer who always came in when I asked and oh, btw, gave a very thoughtful present to one of my children for graduation. I knew I would regret not going, but hey, I told myself I was too busy. Or tired. Lazy, maybe? Doesn’t matter; that one stings.

Or when I knew sending an often unreliable volunteer to that home would result in a disaster. Sure, I had no one else. Sure, it was a tough case. Sure, I wanted to complete the assignment cause I was egotistical about filling assignments. But, I knew it was a mistake and yet, I did it anyway.

Or when I was too busy to double-check on that assignment, cause my gut told me that times and location had changed, but I let it go, until volunteers frantically called me because they were in the wrong place. Yep.

What was I thinking?

Fortunately, I don’t dwell on these lapses in common sense. But I also can’t wipe them from memory like they never happened. Not entirely. So, is feeling guilty the answer? Can I do anything to make amends and wipe the deed from the universe’s memory?

Constructive vs unproductive

When you make a mistake you regret, look for the lesson. Two weeks ago I wrote about volunteers who teach us to be vigilant. The mistakes we personally make teach us not only are we human and fallible, but we are also adaptive and teachable. The beauty of being human is our ability to grow and learn.

Harness mistakes as a blueprint for improving

There are some ways to keep regrets from eating away at you. Being constructive and choosing to use the mistake as a springboard to improving puts you in control. Harnessing mistakes means:

  • first and foremost, get rid of unrealistic expectations-you know what I mean, the “I have to be perfect, because, (insert every disastrous outcome here, like volunteers will not like me) and set expectations that allow for a few mistakes to occur.
  • give yourself attainable goals and parameters-stop the “I must NEVER again do anything wrong” baloney and ease up. Try, “I’m working towards a reasonable goal in steps that are not perfect.”
  • forgive yourself, but remember the lesson and use it to motivate, not berate yourself.
  • record all the examples of you doing something amazing and compare to the one or two missteps-you’ll find that you are actually, pretty amazing.
  • dialogue the lessons: Journal the conscious steps you are taking from lessons learned.
  • remind yourself that volunteers and your organization are better served by someone who learns from mistakes and grows than someone who lives in paralyzing guilt and stays stuck in guilty-mode.
  • name regrets out loud(this is a tough one)-don’t fear admitting blunders, to volunteers, to staff, to administration. But always add, “and because I assigned a volunteer who I knew wouldn’t follow through, I have learned that it is more important to give our clients reliable volunteer help than just filling an assignment to fill it. And here are the steps I’m taking to make sure we always give our clients our best.” Besides, if you own your mistakes, guess what? You get to define them and stop any inaccuracies from becoming organizational lore, such as “oh, the volunteer department never sends reliable volunteers.” Own the narrative.

Forgive without forgetting

Let those tucked away regrets motivate you to be constructive so they don’t turn into full-on guilt. Regrets can either keep us paralyzed by guilt or they can motivate us to grow by making us constructive.

And hey, think about this. Which would your volunteers prefer? A paralyzed by guilt leader or one beautifully human, who embraces constructive changes and is visibly growing in leadership skills?

Not a tough choice.


If you are having overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame or hopelessness, please reach out to a trusted family member, friend or colleague. These days, additional stressors can exacerbate our feelings of guilt, hopelessness and anxiety. We all experience tough times and knowing when to ask for help is courageous and necessary. Be important to yourself. We need you.