Regret. It seems to be a fact of life: the one who got away, the job you didn’t take, the fight you wish you hadn’t had, the choice of the wrong school, the investment you didn’t make, the money you didn’t save, the move you wish you’d made, and on and on and on.
That’s the predictability of life; there will definitely be something along the way you will wish you’d done differently. Regrets can be big — choosing the wrong career — or small — picking a dress you really don’t feel good in for the senior prom. They can occur daily, or you can have overarching ones that just seem to color everything you do.
There are a number of cognitive reasons why regret is a factor for most of us. To read more on the literature behind this, visit the National Institutes of Health website on the subject.
Regret on its own is not a bad thing; in fact, it can spur us to action. The parent who has been working too much and might be preoccupied around the children might happen to see an ad, or a parent playing in a carefree manner at the playground with their similar-aged child. This parent might feel a twinge of regret for not focusing on their own child more and may then actually spend more time with their child. People who get terminal diagnoses may regret time wasted and realize that every second is precious, and resolve to enjoy each and every moment they have left. Tim McGraw’s song, "Live Like You Were Dyin’," sums this experience up well. Someone who regrets choosing a particular career path may find themselves approaching retirement and resolve to quit and pursue the career of their dreams. The examples of people who turned something around, tried something new, or charted a new course because regret motivated them are endless.
But for some people, regret becomes something more like an albatross. Too many regrets can sometimes materialize into an overall feeling of being wrong or bad: “I never seem to make the right decisions” or “I always choose the wrong thing for me.” Or regret may cause paralysis because you mourn what you could have or should have done, and can’t seem to make a better decision going forward. This becomes like driving down the highway, constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what you have left behind. Not only do you not enjoy the scenery as you pass it, but it’s dangerous to drive without looking ahead and being present to what’s beside and in front of you.
If regret has become debilitating for you and is not spurring you to improve, but rather feels like the small mirror you are constantly checking behind you, maybe it’s time to let go of the regrettable experiences and move on to something new. While you can learn from any mistake, the only thing any human being has to work with is their present, and hopefully future, state. The present is where the action really is, and being present to where you are now and resolving to make better decisions going forward should be your commitment. But if you have become locked on the rear-view mirror, how do you tear your attention away? After all, you might be looking at something pretty appealing back there that you left behind or choose to ignore!
Consider these steps to stop looking back and start being present to your present, and working on your future:
- Own it. Yes, whatever it is that happened, happened. You made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, went in the wrong direction. Whatever it is, it’s done. And you know what? It’s over. The fact of the human condition is that you won’t always choose wisely, and you won’t choose in your best interests every time. Sometimes you don’t have the right information. Sometimes emotions overrule your thinking, sometimes thinking overrules your “gut." You might not have enough time to consider options, or you might have pressure on you to choose a way. Whatever it is, the bottom line is that the conditions are not always optimal for anyone to make the perfect decision every time. Give yourself a break. Own it, and love yourself anyway. It’s done and you can’t go back in history and rewrite. Cry. Mourn. Scream. Pound the pillows. Do whatever you need to (without harming yourself or others) to get the emotion out, then let it go.
- Learn from it. Try and take an objective view of what happened. Why did you do/decide what you did? This is not an opportunity to bash yourself, but rather to examine the event critically. You can learn a lot about how you make decisions by trying to understand what went awry. Do you need to do a better job next time of gathering information? Do you need more time to think something through? Are you unduly influenced by others? Note what you need to do differently the next time you have a decision to make.
- Write out what you would like. If you regret a lost (or found) relationship, a career choice, a financial decision, an educational experience, then instead of focusing on “what if I had,” focus on “what I want." You can’t revisit the past, but you can turn your attention to something you want. So this career isn’t the best one; how do you paint a picture of something you do want? So the person you let get away got away; how do you create a life you can enjoy as a single person? So you didn’t go to the school of your dreams; how can you structure a plan to take classes or become involved at the school you did go to? Paint a picture in as much detail as you can about where you’d like to head. This will start turning your attention away from the rear-view mirror and to the windshield looking forward.
- Become entranced by today. Turn your attention to senses. Smell, taste, hear, and enjoy whatever it is you are doing at a greater level than you have done before. Really engage with your world. Notice things you haven’t noticed before, and resolve to be PRESENT with whatever is going on. As Oprah Winfrey said, “Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.” Get involved with the now and heighten your senses to what’s around you. The mind can’t focus on two things at once, so if you turn your attention to your surroundings, you won’t be able to focus on your rear-view regrets.
- Make a plan for something you can do that might help to cancel out what you regret. For example, you didn’t spend enough time with your kids growing up and now they won’t visit you much? How about volunteering at an orphanage or joining an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters? Missed out on the career you always wanted? What about taking up some hobby you are passionate about and pursuing that instead? Life is not linear, nor is it black and white. What shades of grey could you incorporate into your life that wouldn’t necessarily change the regret, but might add something important to the life you are leading today?
If you keep driving with your eyes on what you’ve left behind, you are bound to eventually crash. Take the steps to get your eyes back on the road and see the scenery of today, and focus on where you are going.