Moving on from regret

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Life is full of regrets, but they can also stand in the way of life, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

Regret seems to be a part of life. The trip we did not take, the job promotion we did not go for, the investment we did not put our money into, the investment we did put our money into. Somewhere along the line there will probably be things we wished we had not done or said and things we wished we had.

Today's mantra seems to be live with "no regrets". It suggests we must always make the right choices, even if we have no idea how a choice we make today will impact on our life 10 years from now.

I'm not so sure regrets are all that bad. I have some regrets, one being the job in a major New York hospital I did not take. Do I wish I had taken it? In some ways, yes. However, I'm really happy with life and where I'm at now. If I had taken it, then I would be in a different place than I am today. So, although in some ways I still regret not taking the job, I do not regret where I am now. Maybe regrets are not black and white.

Some people hang on to regrets. A little like collecting heavy weights to wear around their neck. That's hard work! Too many regrets can add up and become overwhelming, leading people to believe they never make a good decision and that they always fail. Moving forward becomes impossible because they fear making another bad decision. They become paralysed and the simplest decision becomes a major one.

So what can we do?

I think regrets can actually help us define what is important to us and help motivate us to make changes. To make regrets "useful" we need to change how we think about them and do a bit of detective work.

• Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we will not always make the "right" decision - we are human, we are not perfect.

Regret assumes there was actually something you could have done differently, a different path you could have taken or a superior choice you could have made ... except you did not, you chose the daft one! That is not always the case. In some situations there may not be a better decision, they might all be tough and unpleasant. Acknowledge what you could have changed and what you could not. Treat yourself with compassion, do not beat yourself up.

• What is it that the regret is telling us? Often there is an accompanying emotion with regret (sorrow, fear, anger, frustration, embarrassment, shame, remorse, disappointment) or a combination of them and many others. This is the "pinch point". Rather than the regret itself, this is the bit that usually hurts. It is helpful to name what the emotion is and think about why you feel that way. What would it be like if you had not made the decision you did? Why would that be better? Why did you make the decision you did? Did you need more information? Why did, or did not, you take action? Probably the most important question is: what would you do differently next time? Doing things differently is vitally important, especially if you keep finding yourself with the same regret time and time again.

• Is it time to really nail down your values and standards, your boundaries and needs so the decisions you make from here on in align with who you really are?

• Then take a look at what this regret shows you about what you want out of life? What do you feel you are missing because of it? What action do you need to take to get where you want to be, to get what you want to have?

• Acknowledge what is good in your life today. Rather than look at life in the rearview mirror, look forwards and focus on the here and now. The sooner you realise you can not change the past, the more quickly you are motivated to do something of value for yourself and others. Letting go of regrets frees up emotional energy you can use to correct past mistakes and learn from them.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said "life can only be understood backwards but it needs to be lived forward".

Making mistakes through life is inevitable but suffering because of them need not be. Wisdom does not come from experience alone, but also from thoughtful reflection and changing course when we want to get a different result. Using regrets to inform us about what we can do differently and what's important to us, helps release that heavy weight from around our neck and lets us move on.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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