I recently listened to a podcast that challenged my view of regret. I used to view regret as a (regretful) stain on ones conscience, best not dwelled upon, for fear of living in the past. It turns out I've been thinking about it all wrong. There is an upside to regret. If you've ever felt bogged down by your regrets, this revelation is for you:
Regrets are a feature of life. They are inevitable.
You can be in control of your regrets.
The key is to CHOOSE your regrets.
Regret is defined as a feeling of sadness or disappointment over something that has happened or been done. We can only regret things we think we have control over. Any sentence that begins with "I wish I had" is a regret. "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends", "I wish I had prepared better for that interview", "I wish I had trusted my instincts and... (fill in the blank)."
I always prefaced any admission of regret with: "I know we're not supposed to hold onto regrets, but..." I viewed regrets as an admission of weakness. Weakness for not having had the wherewithal to pursue my wants. Weakness for not having clearly identified what was important to me. Weakness for not knowing myself better.
In fact, regrets are a feature of life. They are inevitable. They are not a weakness. By choosing one thing, you can’t do a different thing. And, when making a choice, you will always wonder in retrospect what could have been had you made the other choice. So, to regain autonomy and acceptance of regrets, you need to CHOOSE YOUR REGRETS. Research has shown that feeling in control is hugely beneficial to ones well being and mental health. In contrast, people who feel powerless are less satisfied and less successful. Here's what choosing your regrets looks like:
When making a choice, think not only about what thing you want, but WHAT REGRET CAN YOU LIVE WITH? Project yourself forward and think about which thing you could not bear to live without. For example, imagine choosing between moving your family cross-country for an exciting and potentially lucrative job opportunity, or staying put to provide stability for your children in their last years of school. Which regret can you live with: the regret of not knowing what lifestyle changes and personal satisfaction your new job might have afforded? Or the regret of uprooting your family with potentially challenging consequences for your currently happy teens? By framing and choosing regret in this way, you shift from scarcity and fear about the future to a place of greater clarity and acceptance, which makes decision making a lot easier.
Also, importantly, regrets exist because you cared about something enough to be bothered by it. While you may adopt conscious choosing of your regrets from this point forward, what about stubborn regrets from the past that you can't release? Any regret taking up mind space and draining your energy deserves exploration. Why is it so important to you? How can you create a positive action or outcome from your regret? What have you learned that you can apply to future choices? Keep in mind that people tend to regret more intensely choices that they still have the opportunity to change. If you regret not going to school for another degree, for instance, you may regret it more each year that you don’t do something about it.
So, when faced with a decision, try to adopt the practice of choosing regret. Let the anticipation of regret help you decision make in the moment. Ask yourself:
Which regret can I live with?
Which regret can I not live with?
Answering these questions will give you insights into your own values, beliefs, and behaviors. Use that knowledge to drive your choice of future regret.