“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…”
Those famous lines from “My Way” always struck me when I was a kid. Would I feel that way when I was old (like, fifty!)?
How did one go about living a life where you had too few regrets to mention? I already had more regrets than I could handle - not handing my homework in on time, talking back to my mother, kissing Steven Phipps…
Psychologists believe that regret is an emotion that is first felt around the age of two, when we are first able to understand the concept of “if only…” Which means we develop our perception of regret at an age where we don’t have the discernment to know it is an emotion that will not serve us.
Regrets often arise from the feeling that we have failed in some way. There is a saying that a man who never makes a mistake, never makes anything. Failure can be seen merely as a necessary stage as you move towards success. As Albert Einstein said:
“Failure is success in progress”.
Yet sometimes it is possible to feel such regret over perceived mistakes, poor choices or bad behaviours, it can be all consuming, bringing the past into the present and colouring our hopes for the future.
Amy Summerville runs the Regret Lab at the University of Miami, Ohio. Her contention is that regret is only a “bad thing” if it becomes a habitual way of thinking. There are three ways of “reframing” regrets so that they don’t plague us:
I think that the reflective phase of midlife presents a perfect opportunity to examine regrets and either do something about them or let them go. Often, it is possible to revisit the action that caused the regret in the first place and make a different decision.
Do you regret passing up that opportunity to follow your passion for anthropology and studying dentistry instead because that is what your parents wanted? Can you find a way to study now, even if alongside your dental practice? Could you actually change career?
Do you wish you’d gone travelling when you were 18? Hostels cater for 50 something backpackers. Or, if you don't fancy sharing a dorm with a roomful of gap year students who make the air strum with hormonal tension, use your buying power to travel more comfortably!
Make that apology, even if it is 30 years overdue. Take that dance class, write that novel, visit that place, be as brave now as you’ve been wishing you could be all your life. Tell that person you love them, are proud of them, wish them well.
“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” Harriet Beecher Stowe
Having posted the question “what is your biggest regret” on Twitter, Emma Freud, writing in the Guardian, noted:
"Regret seems most often to be about fear. Fear of getting it wrong, leading to an unfulfilled life, followed by self-blame for being fearful.”
Isn’t that sad? To be so paralysed by the fear of making a mistake that we do nothing at all? Emma Freud was inundated with replies to her tweet - more than 300 - and was stunned by the honesty and depth with which people replied. Her conclusion?
“Regret is a deep sorrow about something you did, or something you failed to do. It’s anger at yourself for having enough information to have made the right decision, but making the wrong one – ie: it’s about self-blame.” Emma Freud
Self blame. Obviously, some regrets are for things we did, said, or didn’t do or say, that simply cannot be put right. Unkind words in the heat of the moment. Embarrassing things like inhibitions dropped under the influence of alcohol, wardrobe malfunctions, job interviews that went wrong.
We’ve all said or done things that, on reflection, we probably shouldn’t or wouldn’t again. Is beating ourselves up in perpetuity really the only way forward?
“I'd rather regret the things I've done than regret the things I haven't done.” Lucille Ball
Then there are the serious things like not being there when a loved one died, or not telling someone you loved them. All we can do in those instances is to remind ourselves of the times were there for the person we feel we let down at the end. To reflect on the life we have had despite our failure to declare our love, rather than the life that might have been. In other words, to forgive ourselves.
For if we dare to live a full and fulfilling life, if we take the risks necessary to evolve and grow and keep moving forward, we are bound, at times, to make mistakes, take wrong turns and make bad choices. Just as likely, in fact, as we are to make the right choices, to fulfil our potential, to make a contribution to the world. The point is that to allow ourselves to thrive, we must face the fear of “getting it wrong”.
Hanging on to regret serves little purpose except to hold us back, preventing us from living fully in the present. Letting go of regret is possibly one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves.
As for me, well, handing my homework in late occasionally didn’t do me any lasting harm. Nor did talking back to my mother. Kissing on the other hand… well that’s another story.
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“What is your biggest regret?” Emma Freud in The Guardian 31/10/17 https://bit.ly/2yiKAkp
“The Meaning of Regret.” Bruce Grierson, writing in Psychology of Today: https://bit.ly/2E4dhUK