It is often said that hindsight is the best vision, as we sit down and look back at 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 or area of study, 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 it goes; this is when the gut wrenching feeling of regret sets in. If you have ever had the misfortune of experiencing regret, you would agree that it is not a nice thing to experience; as a matter of fact we may understand fully why it is said “regret is a dish often served cold,” because it is basically unpalatable.
Regret on its own is not always a bad thing as it can spur us to action. For instance the parent who has been working too much and is not present around their children might happen to observe another parent playing in a carefree manner 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. 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 a dark doom. For such persons 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. At this point, life is lived as if driving down a long road, constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what you have left behind. Not only do you not enjoy the scenery in the present as you pass it, but it becomes dangerous as you drive without looking ahead which subjects you to more mistakes.
Here now are a few suggestions to help you deal with the feeling of regret:
1. Own it. Yes!!! Whatever happened is done. You made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, and went in the wrong direction. Whatever it is, it’s done. The fact is, as a human condition 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 instinct.” 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, and then let it go.
2. 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 wrong before. 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.
3. 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.
So for everyone reading this article, 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, I want to encourage you 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.