Regrets in Life: A Good or Bad Thing?

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both”–Soren Kierkegaard

Most people have regrets about something in their lives, particularly those who are dying. There are conflicting views as to whether having these regrets serve a purpose and are a healthy. Is it possible to have no regrets? Which regrets are more powerful—the ones that involve mistakes we have made, or the ones that involve things we didn’t do?

What are Regrets?

A regret is defined as when we feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that we have done, or something we haven’t done or a loss or missed opportunity. We can feel remorseful and sorrowful over an event, behavior or decision.

Janet Landman, author of Regret: Persistence of the Possible, defined regret as a “more or less painful cognitive and emotional state of feeling sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses, transgressions, shortcomings or mistakes. It is an experience of felt-reason or reasoned-emotion. The regretted matters may be sins of commission as well as sins of omission; they may range from the voluntary to the uncontrollable and accidental; they may be actually executed deeds or entirely mental ones committed by oneself or by another person or group; they may be moral or legal transgressions or morally and legally neutral.”

Some research seems to suggest, therefore, that a definition difference is that of action vs inaction. The data seems to suggest that people not taking action that they regret had a more powerful impact on them then the actions they took which they regret. Also, regrets of action more often involved a decision made at a specific choice point than did inactions, which were more likely to to result from an accumulated, unfocused pattern of inaction.

Thomas Giloviqh and Vitoria Husted Medvec argue in their published study that there is a temporal pattern to the experience of regret and document the importance of psychological processes that decrease the pain of regrettable action over time; bolster the pain of regrettable inaction over time, and; show how a person’s cognitive processes impact the difference.

 Giloviqh and Medvec conclude the following:

  • More compensatory actions are taken to ameliorate regrettable actions;
  • The passage of time brings an increase in retrospection, and belief that the failure to act was inexcusable;
  • The consequences of regrettable actions tend to be finite; the consequences of regrettable inaction tend to be psychologically infinite;
  • Regrettable failures to act tend to more memorable and enduring than regrettable actions.

Some people argue that we should “regret nothing” or that they “wouldn’t do things differently,” if they could live their lives over again. While not doubting the sincerity of those beliefs, that’s hard to accept at face value, Giloviqh and Medvec argue. First, living a life where you haven’t made mistakes is either extremely difficult to accomplish, or the person is not telling the truth. If the mistakes we made resulted in harm to others, society or the environment, there’s a good reason to be regretful. With that reason is the realization that other choices could have been made with less negative results. Similarly, failing to take action in a situation that may have resulted in harm could also be a situation where regret is understandable, and another choice could have been made.

Other research studies show that we do have short-lived regrets for our mistakes, but usually within two weeks. But the regrets for things we didn’t do, the missed opportunities? Those can last for years.

What Are the Most Common Regrets?

In the various studies of people who are dying, there are some common themes. For example, Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, describes the following regrets as being in common among her patients:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” A lot of people live a life they think should be living according to society, friends, or family and end up with the realization that it was not the life they wanted to live. Connected to this regret is an unspoken wish that they had discovered and followed their purpose in life sooner (or at all).
  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” We’ve all heard the expression, “no-one on their death bed says ‘I wish I had worked more at the office.’” People on their death bed more frequently talk about wishing they had spent more time with their family, friends and doing things other than work.
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” While there some wide variations in personality and culture regarding emotional expression, there is considerable evidence that it is a fundamental part of emotional intelligence which is a significant contributor to mental health and well-being.
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” As we age, friendships change, friends are lost and our lives become so busy with other things, that nurturing friendships can often be neglected. Yet, research shows the power of friendship gets stronger with age and may even be more important than family relationships.
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Life can become a continuous focus on activities, goals, lifestyle and material possessions, and there are times when we don’t take the time to truly examine what really contributes to long-term happiness and meaning in life. Considerable evidence now exists to illustrate the factors that significantly make an impact on our happiness.

A common thread that runs through these five regrets of the dying is that there are all omissions (things that were not done), as opposed to commissions (mistakes we have made for which we may also feel guilt).

Neal Roese published a study in which he examined this question, and concluded the following most common regrets:

  • Lost loves
  • Family relationships
  • Insufficient education
  • Career dissatisfaction
  • Financial concerns
  • Parenting issues
  • Personal health
  • Friendships

Roese noted as well, that women had most frequent regrets about romance, whereas men had work regrets. He also concluded that regrets were balanced between omissions and commissions.

Other studies have identified the following regrets as being shared by many people:

  • “I wish I had taken more risks”
  •  “I wish I had touched more lives and inspired more people”
  • “I wish I cared less of what others think of me”
  • “I wish I hadn’t worried so much about things.”
  • “I wish I had lived in the present/now”
  • “I wish I hadn’t taken life for granted.”
  • “I wish I had stood up to bullies in school and life.”
  • “I wish I had let go of old resentments towards family or friends
  • “I wish I had trusted my intuition more.”
  • “I regret choosing the wrong people for friends when I was younger.”

Should We Take Action To Eliminate or Reduce Our Regrets?

The answer to that depends on whether the regret is related to an act of commission on our part, or an act of omission, as previously mentioned. Regret for behavior or actions we may have taken in the past where harm was done to others serves a healthy purpose if we subsequently take responsibility for our actions, and where feasible, do something to make amends to those injured. In that way, we are taking responsibility for the present, and not being mired in the past.

Mark Coleman in his book Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, says we encourage feelings of regret by feeding our inner critic, and by saying “not enough,” “not good enough,” or sometimes “too much.” All are judgments and second guessing yourself.

Fellow PT blogger, Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., argues “The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. However, the less opportunity one has to change the situation, the more likely it is that regret can turn into rumination and chronic stress that damages mind and body.” Certainly, continuing regret over actions taken can be psychologically damaging. Greenberg says “Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life. This pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking is characteristic of depression and may be a cause of this mental health problem as well.”

Neal Roese argues that regret is rated favorably as a useful process because it can be the impetus for positive action. In his research regret was helpful for individuals in, among other things, avoiding future negative behaviors and gaining insight.

Psychological and emotional pain often accompanies regrets. The research seems to indicate that people engage in strategies to deal with regret involving action more readily than regrets about inaction.

Regrets over missed opportunities, or decisions or choices that are not made, are different, partly because there may not be a causal relationship between the inaction and the resulting harm that was done either to others or to self. Yet, as mentioned, these regrets of omission tend to be persistent and long-term, if not as intense.

Often, people who harbor regrets of omission think they would do things differently if presented with the same scenario, decision, or choice again. But this is faulty logic. First, we can’t revisit the past and have a do-over. Second, if a future similar situation arose, it would never be completely the same as there are too many variables to replicate. Finally, ruminating or obsessing about a regret of omission assumes 20/20 retroactive vision—that we could see then what we see now—which is not possible. We often make the choices and decisions in life at the time given what we know. The focus of dealing productively with the consequences of our choices and decisions is just as important as the decision or choice itself.

In addition to some cognitive psychotherapy, mindfulness can be very helpful as a strategy in dealing with regrets of omission. In particular, mindfulness emphasizes living in the present, and not focusing excessively on the past or future. Second, mindfulness teaches us to accept the feelings and emotions we have without agonizing over them, or blocking, avoiding or pushing them away. Accepting that we may feel regret, but not letting that regret control our emotional state is critical. And finally, embracing non-attachment—to things, people, events, choices, and decisions—and seeing them all as clouds floating by, or leafs on the stream of our lives, will give us a healthy perspective.

In the final analysis, life just is, not what we wish it to be, or as my teacher taught me: “It is what it is, and it’s nothing more.”




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