Its official, my “childhood home” (the home we lived in when I was in high school) hit the real estate market. I am not sentimental when it comes to my high school days, but I know how hard this must be on my mom. She lived there for 20 years and is now faced with downsizing her life as a result of her age and the MS she has been dealing with for 10 years. When she called to tell me the news, I could hear the excitement, relief and fear in her voice.
The conversation bounced from the details of the meeting with her agent, to her reflections of the past 20 plus years of her life. My mom worked hard, she was a good mom, but she reflects on her 60 years on Earth with a list of regrets longer than her list of accomplishments. She regrets working too much, not working hard enough, not taking better jobs, taking too aggressive of jobs, and basically every man that has ever been in her life. As a 60 year old, she is also surrounded by others facing the same reflections of regret. Regret is just a part of our life as we get older, and it eats some of us alive.
I’ve seen psychologist write about how regret and the emotions that come with it are similar to the grief one feels when they lose a loved one. It makes sense, it is a form of grief, and one with no closure. There is no way to turn back time, the past is the past and hindsight is 20/20. All those cliches are true. But why do we all spend so much time and energy with our regrets? Some spend so much time with grief from regret, that it breaks them down physically and causes health issues.
I have many regrets, so I am no expert on living a regret free life. At 34 my list of regrets is outrageously long. But in full transparency, I can cope with my regrets. They don’t keep me up at night and they definitely don’t consume me, yet. Maybe that is because I haven’t fucked up big enough? But I like to believe its because each of those regrets came with life lessons that prevented failures and heartbreak further down the line. I like to reflect on them as vital points in my mental development, that have helped guide me to a more fulfilled and happy life.
For example, the shitty college boyfriend taught me how to walk away from relationships no matter how entrenched I felt. It also taught me that the grit I was so proud of up until that point, was also a nail in my coffin. It was as if with every naysayer that told me the relationship was doomed, I tacked on a few extra months of misery. Upon reading Sway, I realized how close I was to being a statistic. Had I stuck in that relationship, I would have done something many humans do- set myself up for regret. According to the authors, a majority of those that end up divorced, knew the relationship was doomed prior to walking down the aisle but they still did it because walking away in that moment is perceived as harder than just sticking it out and hoping for the best. The fear of failure, disappointing others, proving others wrong, and other emotions outweighed the rational mind.
Regret comes in all forms. From the hamster wheel in your head after that meeting at work where you asked the “stupid” question, or said something that may have been inappropriate to the relationship that ended in divorce or heartache, regret is everywhere. But before I go so far as to say it is unavoidable, I do think there are ways that we can avoid living in our regrets. So here is a handy list of tips for avoiding regret in one’s life, by someone who needs to heed their own advice.
- When you do something you’ll regret or you already regret, instead of spiralling in the grief of the regret, reflect on what lead you to that decision. I often joke that self-awareness is the key to everything, and this is no exception. If you take personal accountability for your errors, and don’t deflect them onto others, you can learn a lot about yourself and the mental reasons why you did what you did. Through that process you may learn the outcome you regret was unavoidable, lessening the regret. Or you may see it was avoidable and you now know what not to do in the future. Life never makes knowing what to do easy, but maybe knowing what not to do will provide the insight needed to make better decisions and avoid further regrets.
- Follow your mind, with guidance from your heart. Lets face it, the heart is flawed. Its horrible at committment, its fragile, and its poor decision making has given birth to almost all of the art produced over the past 2,000 plus years. Our heart makes us do stupid shit, but if we keep it in check with our reason, it can guide us to pursuits that make us happy. So just keep that shit in check cause it can’t be trusted.
- Spontaneity is a cool concept, but should probably be used for things like fun random vacations, not life long decisions or confrontations.
- Know yourself, be confident in yourself and let yourself grow. You shouldn’t care what others think of you and your decisions, and if you find yourself giving a shit, you should wonder what insecurity is driving that voice of doubt. Maybe that voice is the one you should be concerned with more so than others. It is often our perceptions of what others think about us that mirror our own concerns and insecurities.
- If you aren’t in therapy, you should be, period. Adulting is hard and no one should have to do it alone. Having an objective third party can help us foresee the potential long term impact of big decisions, or at least give us confidence in them lessening the regret if they fail.
- Learn from your elders. This one is just based on personal experience; my avoidance of most regrets have resulted from reflections on my own mothers. We are predisposed to committing the same errors of our parents, so don’t let history repeat itself.
- YOLO- but know that in this one life, you have to live with your decisions. Happiness is not just something given to you. It is a product of hard work, sound decision making, and patience. I often wonder how many years people waste in their rushed decisions to hurry the desired result.
- Know you are not alone. Even the most “perfect” human has a long list of regrets. No one gets out of this life without a the should of, could of, and would of’s. And if they act like they do/will, they are liars.