Why did I eat that cake? I wish I’d taken that job. I never should’ve dated that guy.
Have you ever had thoughts like that? Probably. It’s your brain’s way of telling you to rethink your choices. But sometimes, your brain gets stuck.
What Do People Regret?
I just discovered Bonnie Ware, an Australian writer who spent several years caring for dying people. She asked those nearing death if they had any regrets, and these are the top 3 they shared:
- I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself
- I wish I didn’t work so hard
- I wish I was brave enough to express my feelings
That got me to thinking about the idea of regrets. Is there anything good about them?
The good news
It’s true, regrets can bring sadness or anger, but if you know how to get unstuck from those feelings, regret can actually inspire you to change and grow in positive ways. That’s what happened for actress and singer Pearl Bailey, a high school dropout, who became a college freshman at the age of 60.
Pearl recalls, “I got up at the dinner table in Los Angeles and said, ‘Let me go to college. There’s one up the street.’” She began at Pierce College and later graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in Theology at the age of 67. From there, Pearl went on to write six books.
I’ll have the chicken
You see, if you’re lucky enough to have lots of choices in your life, then there are also lots of opportunities to regret things. Imagine if a waiter said to you, “The only food on the menu tonight is chicken, and I’ve already ordered it for you.” You wouldn’t regret your dinner selection because you had no choices.
But most of us have the freedom to decide on things. Lots of things. Will you go to this college or that? Will you take this job or that? Will you stay with this lover or not? And at some point, you might wish you’d made a different decision.
The question is: How can you turn your regret into motivation? Even inspiration?
3 steps to living regret-free
1. Reframe your story
Instead of criticizing yourself for “that stupid thing I did,” remember that you did the best you could with the information and perspective you had at the time. It’s easy to judge yourself now that you have the benefit of hindsight or experience, but you didn’t have either of those when you decided to live on donuts and coffee, date the wrong person or pick your college major. As author Maya Angelou famously said, “When you know better, you do better.”
2. Retell your story
To transform your regret into wisdom, here’s the biggest question to ask yourself: “What did I learn from this?” Allow every experience to become your teacher. Did you pursue a career you never wanted? Were you loyal to a boss that laid you off? What did you learn from that? Maybe you’ve discovered a growth-spot.
Have you been too afraid to speak up, too willing to settle? Or maybe you learned that your most wonderful qualities, such as creativity or dedication, are best shared with those who value them. Then again, maybe you learned that no matter who you are, sometimes stuff just happens.
3. Rewrite your story
You can’t change what’s happened in the past, but you can change the way you live today. Take your big, fat lesson and make it more than insight—make it a catalyst for transformation. What can you start doing today to redesign your present and your future, even if it’s only a shift of attitude? Maybe you’ll start trusting yourself more or stop trying to be perfect. Maybe you’ll get more sleep or look for a new job. The story is yours to write.
It turns out regret has a good side. Although you can’t change the past, you can use it to motivate and inspire you toward a better future, just like Pearl Bailey did. For me, when I feel stuck, I follow the three steps above. Give it a try and see how you feel. You won’t regret it.
Let us know how you've dealt with regret in life in the Comments section, below.