The Futility of Regrets

Dear Dr. Hurd,

I can’t stop thinking about past decisions that in the present turned out less-than-good. I wish I had the money that I spent on cars and some vacations. I regret having bought a boat years ago when I could have used that money differently now. These things prey on me, though I know there’s nothing I can do about them. I understand that I need to look at this differently, but I don’t know how.


Dr. Hurd replies:

Regrets are pointless. You can’t change what’s past. You’re thinking, “If I had this or that to do over again, I’d do it differently.” Do you regret that you might have made a mistake? If so, then it’s an error that you’ve since corrected. To regret making an error is like expecting yourself to be infallible.

People sometimes regret things that made perfect sense at the time.  A good example involves relationships. “I wish I hadn’t been in that relationship.” I then ask, “OK, what was bad about it?” “Well, it wasn’t bad at the time. We were in love and had good times. But it didn’t last.”

What’s the point of regretting what you admit was right for you then? If the spouse had died, you wouldn’t conclude, “We had 20 fantastic years but he died prematurely. I wish we had never met.” That’s no different than, “We had 20 fantastic years until one (or both) of us changed. So I wish we’d never met.”

People regret lesser things too. “I spent thousands of dollars on vacations ten years ago. I wish I had that money now.” OK, but could you afford the vacations at the time?  Did you enjoy them? “Yes, and yes.” Short of Googling, “time machine, cheap,” there’s nothing you can do about any of it. So let it go!

Our emotions are good at projecting our current needs or desires onto ten or twenty years ago. If what we wanted then isn’t what we want today, we automatically assume that what we did back then was wrong. Things can only be right for their time; that’s all we have to work with.

None of this denies the fact that people make mistakes. But don’t assume something was an error just because you wouldn’t do it now. And if something was indeed a mistake, then use that knowledge in the present. Yesterday’s errors are today’s power! Thinking people are not doomed to make the same mistake over and over again.

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