I once heard regrets defined as responsibility that comes home a day late and a dollar short. Wikipedia – which is so much more fun than an actual dictionary or encyclopedia sometimes – says this (in part) about regret: ”Regret is an intelligent (and/or emotional) dislike for personal past acts and behaviors.
Regret can describe not only the dislike for an action that has been committed, but also, importantly, regret of inaction. Many people find themselves wishing that they had done something in a past situation.” Sound familiar?
I want to explore what we regret and why we regret. The “what” is far easier to explain; generally regrets fall into two categories:
1. regret for having taken an action
2. regret for not taking an action
Regretting having done something is often characterized as a lack of judgment or indulging that moment in which some action seems like a good idea. Let’s not forget those moments when that huge red warning flag of rational thought waves so hard it practically smacks you in the face and yet somehow can be ignored. The word “rationalization” can get a bit tarnished at times. Then again, regret can seemingly be at war with spontaneity, taking a chance, going for the brass ring – which leads us to that other aspect of regret – not taking an action. I’ve met many a former member of any number of professions who regret to this day that they didn’t stay in the career or calling that meant the most to them. I’ve met far too many people who lament they never pursued becoming a chef, teacher, parent, spouse, etc.. For these people, their regret defines their lives just as surely as accomplishments or memorable events do for others. Their “non-event” is where their passion stays trapped; that’s painful for them, and one hell of a legacy to pass on to their loved ones too.
Having read a number of studies and scholarly papers on regret (to add to my own vast experience) there was one aspect that loomed quite large: the differences in the imagined consequences of regrettable actions or inactions. You know what I mean: “if only I had asked that gorgeous woman (or guy, if you’d prefer) out, we would have been dating and maybe even been married by now” OR “if only I had taken that job I’d be running that department/company/country now!” Ah, the Devastating Duo: “if only” and The Imagined Consequence. So given the pain that regret seems to engender, why oh why, do we regret? Is there some great value that can come of it?
Perhaps the value lies in how you respond to experiencing regret – does it inform you or do you let it define you? I think that’s the key here – it’s impossible to know if every action (or inaction), every choice, every decision will be the “right” one. Frankly, how would you even define “right”? I, for one, feel that I am the sum total of all my experiences, all my choices, and while I may know I have lots of growth opportunities ahead of me I also know that I’ve done pretty well considering where I started. How could I know what my “true” path would have been years ago?
But, let me offer this to all of you who have been digging your heels in, clawing at the earth and trying to hold onto the ultimate excuse – “I’ll [insert as-yet undone activity here] as soon as I get around to it”…here ya go:
Feel free to print it out and put it to good use. Be well and, by all means, Live Fully, regrets be damned!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain