Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets. Arthur Miller
Remember the Frank Sinatra song – My Way, and the memorable lines:
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
Most of us will experience some regrets as we grow older – things we did, things we didn’t do but should have, things that were well intentioned but turned out badly, opportunities we missed, people we hurt, a relationship that we stayed in when the better path would have been to have ended it, a relationship we didn’t try hard enough to save . . .
A national American survey identified the items most frequently mentioned (in order) by people who said they regretted something in their past: romance, family, education, career, finance, parenting, health, “other,” friends, spirituality, community, leisure, and self.
In their paper: Regrets of the Typical American, Findings From a Nationally Representative Sample by Mike Morrison, Neal J. Roese, the authors found that “Regrets more often focused on non-fixable than fixable situations. Women more than men reported love rather than work regrets and, overall, regrets more often focused on romance than on other life domains.”
So, if you find yourself regretting things that you have done, how can you stop constantly beating up on yourself?
- First, ask yourself if you have regrets over something that you could have changed at the time, or whether you had no choice in the matter? If it is the latter, then every time you find yourself feeling regretful over the event, counter it by thinking to yourself: “If I could have made a better choice I would have”.
- If it was something over which you had no control a number of years ago, are the possibilities and choices different today? If you didn’t get a post secondary education when you left high school, can you get a degree or a diploma or certificate now? Or is it just easier to sit around and moan how awful your life is because you don’t have a university degree?
- If your regret concerns something over which you had some choice, is there a way you can remedy the situation today? Can you give (or write) an apology to a person you regret offending? If you will not (not can’t) do this, then stop regretting the initial behaviour that you are now regretting!
- Distinguish between regrets for something that you did intentionally, and mistakes that usually are inadvertent and not planned. Mistakes are something that provide us with an opportunity to learn; regrets add absolutely nothing to our future development, unless we decide that our instant regret is so powerful that we vow we will never repeat the action. In that case, the action was also a learning event, painful, but useful.
- Regrets are usually accompanied by words such as: “should have”, “if only”, or, “if I had it to do over again”. Monitor your language. Try a little humour by substituting “next time on this earth I am going to . . . “
- Practice rational thinking. You know you can’t go back and do things over again – all you have is the now. What can you do right now to change the past? Trick question – you know the answer is However, you may be able to do something in the future that will help remediate pain caused by your actions in the past. That’s why governments apologize to the Japanese for treatment in Canada during World War II, to the Chinese for the unfair and discriminatory head tax, and to the Indigenous people for treatment in the residential schools. Whether they accept the apology or feel that it is sufficient is another question.
- In this respect, I think the Catholics had it right. When you go to confession, the priest gives you a penance (usually few prayers) to help atone for your sins. Instead of spending time regretting things in the past, and especially those that cannot be remediated, then assign yourself a penance – some good works – to atone for your past misdeeds. Volunteer at a foodbank. Help out an elderly neighbour with shopping or lawn care. Tutor, for free, a student who is struggling in school. Read to the blind. Don’t give money – it’s not about buying your way out of this – it’s about making atonement for something that you did wrong. And every time you find your mind returning to this regret, volunteer some more.
And remember the wise words: “You don’t get old until you replace dreams with regrets.” Troy Dumais