Every day we make choices hoping to make our future selves happy. We consider our options, weigh the pros and cons, and choose what appears to be the best path. We flash forward, through the magic of our imaginations, and think, “I’ll be happy I did that.” It doesn’t matter what choices lay before us. Big, small, and medium-sized decisions can all lead to unanticipated regrets.
I once went to a pricey steakhouse with my dad. I took my time, carefully reviewed the menu, and decided to order scallops. When weighing the options, seafood sounded like the most delicious and delectable choice.
Twenty minutes later, the waiter delivered my meal. I took one bite and looked at the plate in disgust. The food tasted terrible. “What were you thinking?” I asked myself. “Everyone knows you should order steak in a steakhouse.”
That’s the thing about regret. We can think through all the possibilities and still feel the pain of making the wrong choice. When time passes, we don’t feel satisfied with our decisions. Instead, we look back with disappointment and regret.
Why Do We Feel Regret?
Regret feels like an emotion that shouldn’t exist. Shouldn’t I know what I’ll want in the future? Why don’t I know what my future self will cherish? What will bring me joy? What will leave me feeling successful and accomplished?
When we think about the future, we do so with rose-colored glasses. We build tomorrow focused on happiness. We imagine the best things that can happen and make decisions hoping to avoid the bad stuff. We aim for success, but in doing so, we overestimate the good that will grace our lives and become utterly optimistic that every choice will be the right one.
Agency and Regret
Picture yourself in a row boat, paddling down the river. You get to control which way you travel. Do you take a left at the bend or continue straight? Do you enter the rapids or avoid them? You are alone in your tiny rowboat, and no one is there to guide you.
You feel proud of your accomplishments when your path leads to sunshine and smooth waters. But when you enter rough rapids, you second-guess yourself.
We can’t know all possible outcomes. Sometimes rough water lies ahead, or a storm pops up while we paddle. But when we imagine our future, we fail to see the bumps in the path ahead. We believe today’s decisions will route us around those obstacles.
Rather than accepting the bumps for what they are, we convince ourselves that they were avoidable and that we just weren’t smart enough to travel the perfect path.
Regrets make us feel like we missed our chance. We can steer our boat in any direction, yet we look at the river’s bends, consider our options, and choose the wrong route.
Regret is grief for a perfect existence that never materializes. We look back at the pivotal decisions in our lives and imagine making different choices that could’ve led to a happier life.
Regret is the Wrong Choice
In the case of those scallops, my past self had the best intentions: I don’t cook seafood very often, the description sounded delicious, and I could share them with my dad. But as I took that first bite, I couldn’t care less about the reasons for choosing that dish. It didn’t matter why I chose my meal. It was the wrong choice.
When our future selves aren’t happy, it’s easy to belittle ourselves. Rather than appreciating the thoughtfulness of past decisions, we look back with regret.
And so it goes with life’s big and small decisions—everything from tonight’s meal selection to tomorrow’s career choice. Sometimes we choose correctly, pat ourselves on the back, and beam with the confidence of a job well done. Other times, we feel sad, embarrassed, and ashamed.
We made the best choice at the given moment, but time has passed, and our feelings have changed. Why don’t we account for that?
Why Does Regret Sting?
Regret stems from a false assumption. We cannot control the future or predict how we might feel a few minutes, hours, days, or decades from now. No matter how hard we try to make the right choice, today’s decisions can’t guarantee happiness.
Regret stings because we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have the agency to decide which path to travel, but ultimately don’t feel satisfied.
Despite our best intentions, we fail to predict all possible scenarios and repercussions. Time and time again, we find ourselves unable to anticipate how our future selves will feel.
Regret Focuses on False Imagery
The life we live here and now is real. The images associated with regret are not factual or tangible. Regret allows us to play out fantasies and fairy tales, but the highlight reels are fake. Everything in life is a trade-off, and every decision leads to good and bad parts.
If we aren’t careful, regret can linger in our minds. It can skip like an old vinyl record, repeatedly playing the same tune. We can shame ourselves for past decisions and blame ourselves for lost friendships, bad relationships, and less-than-ideal career choices.
We can spend our whole lives saying “if only” we had done things differently. If only I traveled abroad in college, chose a different major, and didn’t buy that house in my twenties. If only I’d been less stingy with money, more confident, kind, and understanding.
If we aren’t careful, we can spend our whole lives rehashing our decisions and comparing ourselves to a fantasy version that never makes mistakes. Whether we like it or not, there isn’t a perfect path for each of us. We can try our best to prevent a future of regrets, but they are unavoidable.
Why? Because each decision forever alters the way we view ourselves and the world around us. We can’t hop into a time machine and race back to the previous version of ourselves.
When time moves forward, so do we. We can go to incredible lengths to prevent regret, but ultimately the person that stands before us today is slightly different than the one who stood in the same place yesterday.
How to Live With Regrets
Regrets are a fact of life, so how can we learn to live with them? Begin by writing down the reasons a regret continues to haunt you.
Learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes and recognize that, in most cases, you made the best decision possible. Remember that we have a limited understanding of the future. We must embrace our faults and flaws and give ourselves grace.
Each of us will come to forks in the road where we could’ve made different choices. If we feel sad or disappointed by those decisions, we must remind ourselves that all options have trade-offs and that a life free of heartaches, pain, and sadness doesn’t exist.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Life isn’t meant to be perfect, so it’s time to learn from your past mistakes. If you could go back in time, what would you do differently? Can you apologize, change course, or make amends? What can you do in your current life to avoid a similar regret?
We can’t prevent regrets, but we can reflect and grow from them.
Learn from decisions you’d like to change, but remember this life is the only one we can embrace. We aren’t guaranteed to make perfect choices, but we can learn to treasure our chosen path.
Focus on Gratitude
After you learn from your regrets, accept them, and let them go. Don’t hold on to a past you cannot change.