February 11th is National Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day. It may not be a day you celebrate often, but we’re going to give this little idiom some much due credit. We’ve all heard the line at some point. You’ve probably even said it a time or two. If you believe everything you read on the internet the saying was coined over 350 years ago. It seems to have first appeared in a book of proverbs written by a Welshman named James Howell. The same collection of pages that gave us All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy also gave us No weeping for shed milk, and it evolved from there.
I’ve heard it used sincerely and I’ve heard it used a bit sarcastically, but if you break it down, not crying over spilled milk is some of the best advice you can give. It’s also some of the best advice you can take. It’s acknowledgement that what’s been done cannot be undone. It is an important reminder to let go of the regrets and missteps we often hold onto. As humans we do tend to hold on.
Sometimes we are our own worse critic. We judge ourselves unmercifully and catalogue the things we wished we’d never done or said in an easily accessible drawer in our brains. It’s the drawer we open while we wash our hair in the shower. It’s where we stash the most embarrassing moments of high school. The time we confessed to a crush who laughed. The time we got snarky and hurt the feelings of a best friend. Promises we made and didn’t keep, even though our intentions were good. We pull those memories out and let the pain and guilt and regret wash over us from time to time, crying over the things we cannot change.
All of us have these brain drawers and sometimes even the sweetest of us do things we regret. There will be times in life that it is necessary to apologize and make up for the things we’ve done wrong. Admitting to these things is an important process. When you fess up to what you’re guilty of, the process of forgiving and moving on can begin. Not crying over spilled milk does not mean we skip this step of saying sorry just because something has already happened. It just means that we take the next step after sorry and let go.
As far as our health goes, this step of moving beyond a misstep – big or small – is critical. Studies have shown that living in a loop of regret can impact both our physical and mental health. The effects of holding on too tightly to the negative feelings created by past events can become crippling emotionally. There’s some evidence that this impact on your mental health can also impact your overall health and immune system. And if all that wasn’t enough reason to listen about the milk, staying in this emotional space of regret also makes it harder for you to connect with others, leading to loneliness and isolation.
Today I encourage all of you to celebrate National Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk day by emptying out those mental drawers. Accept the things you need to forgive yourself for that cannot be changed. If there is something out there you still need to say sorry for, do it. Write a note, do it in person, say it to the sky, whatever will work best for you. Acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made, find the lesson in them, and hold on to only those teaching points. Letting go of regret is rarely easy, but it is always worth it.