I wish I could be one of those people who lives life without any regrets, who makes decisions in a carefree manner and never looks back. I know several people who live life this way (or at least claim to) and I envy that they are able to do this. But I’m most definitely not one of those people. I labor over most decisions, big and small, and even after spending hours deliberating and carefully weighing the pros and cons, I often still look back afterwards and wish I could change the choices I’ve made.
After some introspection, I’ve realized that a recurring theme in my adult life has been grappling with regret and guilt. (Psychologists will probably tell you that these are actually two very distinct things, but in my mind they always go hand-in-hand and I honestly don’t think much about the distinction between them.) The interesting thing is that I have not actually done anything in life that is particularly regrettable. Sure, we’ve all made mistakes here and there, but in general I know that I am a good person, a normal law-abiding citizen who has not committed any serious moral transgressions.
My regret and guilt center around things in my past that range from only somewhat significant issues to admittedly completely insignificant issues. I tend to perseverate on these issues for days, sometimes even weeks. I think about them when I’m out on a long run, when I’m driving to work, when I’m in the shower, when I’m trying to fall asleep.
I regret saying so many things I shouldn’t have said.
I regret behaving so selfishly during my college years.
Every time I am reminded of Cornell’s suicide rate, I regret not reaching out to that grown man who I saw alone and bawling during finals.
I regret not finishing my Ph.D. despite having a 4.0 GPA and being awarded the program’s coveted multi-year assistantship.
I regret that my parents spent so much money on a wedding dress that I only wore for a few hours.
I regret that I planned a daytime wedding instead of an evening wedding when there was absolutely no reason to do so.
I regret that on my trip to Hong Kong, I didn’t visit the mountain where my father grew up. Who knows if I’ll ever get another chance to go back.
I regret getting induced. I sometimes think that my son’s birth story wouldn’t have ended in a c-section if I had just let nature take its course instead of succumbing to pressure from my doctor.
I regret that I didn’t feed my newborn son formula sooner. I realize now that he was practically starving those first few days in the hospital before my breastmilk came in.
There are so many more thoughts of regret and guilt that run through my head, and some of my regrets are still so palpable that it would actually bother me to put them into words. I think you get the point though. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, most of these are not very serious regrets. I understand that there are many people in this world who have concerns far more significant than mine. Regardless, these regrets are real to me and some of them occupy my thoughts on a daily basis for weeks at a time.
I have not always been this way. I was a really happy-go-lucky kid and even teen, all the way up through my college years (just ask my college roommate). I made decisions on a whim, often at the last minute, and rarely looked back. Sometimes I wonder how my personality could be so different now. Perhaps it’s because I was more selfish back then and I didn’t care as much about how my actions affected others, or perhaps it’s because the decisions I made were never about anything serious so there were no long-term consequences. People rarely regret choosing soccer camp over track camp or enrolling in AP Bio over AP English.
Regardless of how or why I have become this way, I’ve come to realize that these guilty feelings are not only unproductive, but they are preventing me from enjoying the present and appreciating the many wonderful things in my life. At times, I wonder if becoming consumed by these regrets could even be causing me psychological damage. So, I’ve decided that it’s really time to get things under control.
The following are strategies I’ve identified to alleviate myself of the regret and guilt. I’ve found them to be really helpful and thought that perhaps these strategies might be helpful to my fellow chronic regretters out there.
- Talk it out. Sharing your concerns with a sister or trusted friend can have enormous psychological benefits. Sometimes just putting your feelings into words can be healing.
- Apologize. If your regret centers around something that you did or said to another person, apologize to that person. You may find that they aren’t even thinking about the incident anymore or have forgotten about it entirely.
- Confidence in you. Have confidence in your past decisions and realize that you did what you did for a reason, even if that reason isn’t apparent to you right now.
- Fuhgeddaboudit. If you can’t do anything to change the situation anymore, realize that it’s pointless to regret it. Guilt does not serve any purpose other than to make you terribly unhappy. Remind yourself that focusing too much on this past decision or situation is preventing you from enjoying life in the present.
- Make a change. If you CAN still do something to change the situation, stop wasting time feeling guilty and instead use that time to work on changing the things that are troubling you. You might not be able to change what happened in the past, but you might still be able to change the final outcome.
- Learn from the past. Use your regrets as learning experiences that will motivate you to do better in the future.
- Put things in perspective. Reflect on how serious your “problem” really is in the grand scheme of things. If you find that it’s really not that big of a deal after all, then be grateful that this is your biggest concern and that you are not faced with more serious problems.
Do you have any regrets in life, big or small? Do you ever find yourself thinking about them weeks, months, or years after the fact?
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