Regrets are a Waste of Time

Barely a week goes by when a client doesn’t bring up something he or she regrets. Often it’s in the form of, “I wish I had that situation to do over again. I’d do it differently.” But, other than being a learning experience, regrets are pointless.

What do you regret about the situation? That you made a mistake? If you made a mistake, then there was an error in your reasoning or knowledge that you have since corrected. Otherwise, how would you know it’s a mistake? To regret making an error in reasoning or lacking knowledge is equivalent to expecting yourself to be infallible. Expecting infallibility — defined as the impossibility of error — is irrational. So again, regrets are pointless.

There are also situations where people regret something that made sense at the time, but from their present vantage point, they would not do. A big example of this is a marriage or a relationship. OK, so what was bad about the marriage? “Well, it wasn’t bad at the time. We were very much in love and had years of good times. But it didn’t last.”

I then ask, why regret what was good or right for the time? If the spouse had passed away, but the marriage was fabulous, you wouldn’t conclude, “We had 20 fantastic years but she died prematurely. I wish we had never met.” It’s just as irrational to say, “We had 20 fantastic years but eventually one (or both) of us changed as people, and our needs changed. So I wish we had never met.”

People regret lesser things too. “I spent thousands of dollars on expensive vacations ten years ago. I wish I had that money back now.” OK, but could you afford the vacations at the time? “Yes.” Did you enjoy them? “Thoroughly.” So why are they worthy of regret?

Our emotions (rarely challenged or brought into consciousness) sometimes create regrets. They project onto ten or twenty years ago our current needs or desires. Because what they wanted ten or twenty years ago isn’t the same thing they want or need today, they automatically assume everything they did back then was wrong. Things can be right for their time.

Of course people make mistakes. It’s possible to conclude, “What I did or thought back then was wrong, and this is why. This was my error, denial, or evasion.” Honesty with yourself is paramount!

People who are committed to growth do better with this issue. There’s a term in psychology called the “self-actualizing” personality. The self-actualizing person operates on the premise that life is a continuous process of growth, knowledge, achievement and new understanding. Once certain things are learned or affirmed as true, as general principles, they stay that way. Wisdom is possible, as is objective knowledge. But wisdom and knowledge can improve and expand with age. There will probably always be errors along the way.

To a self-actualizing person, none of this is depressing or burdensome. So many people who get depressed are dragged down by their own assumptions. They feel as if they shouldn’t make mistakes, or they cannot recover from whatever goes wrong. They feel as if life should somehow be effortless existence, where even thought is no longer required. These are the people who yearn for heaven, or nirvana, or utopia in all its various forms.

But if your attitude is that life is full of continuous growth and challenges, then you don’t have this problem. You don’t need utopia. While you don’t always welcome or like what develops, you embrace it as part of what is, and you take it from there. Living in the real world is your challenge, your joy and a thing for you to master. Not a thing to be escaped.