“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” – Sydney Smith
All of us have a few things we regret in life, either opportunities we didn’t take or screw-ups we’ve made. What makes these experiences valuable is what can be learned from each, because that is the stuff that builds character and makes us better people. But most of us aren’t as good at letting go of the past as we’d like. And holding onto the past can cause a lifetime of pain. So what can you do about it? Live a life with no regrets. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but the alternative is almost unbearable.
Researchers in Germany analyzed the effect regret had on emotional health, and the findings were powerful.
“Regret is a powerful mental energy which can be your best friend or worst enemy. You can harness it to improve your future by learning from it, but if you let it grow inside you, it is destructive to both healthy aging and emotional resilience,” said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor and head of the division of biological psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine. He was not involved in the research.
What are the biggest regrets people have in life? The NY Times reported that missed romantic opportunities were the most common regret for women, while men most often had regrets concerning education, their career, or money. But what was worse, regretting doing something that didn’t turn out as well as hoped, or missing an opportunity entirely? It seems that not taking chances in life caused bigger emotional voids in the long-term.
No pattern emerged on the reasons for regret. Just as many respondents expressed regret for something they had done as those who felt regret for something they had not done. However, people whose regrets involved something they didn’t do or a missed opportunity were more likely to hold on to the regret over time.
“The longer-ago regrets tend to focus on lost opportunities, things you could have done or should have done different,” said Dr. Roese. “More recent regrets tend to focus on things you did do that you wish you could take back.”
Looking at regret from a different angle, Bronnie Ware worked closely with people to ease their suffering during the last days of their life, and learned a lot of lessons about how to live with no regrets. Her patients were at the end of the line and shared their deepest regrets with her.
For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again.
Learn other ways to live a life without regret here.