We’ve all heard the phrase, “No regrets!”, usually uttered when about to do something a little unwise perhaps.
And yet, as alluring as the “Living Without Regrets” philosophy sounds, it’s not always so easy.
We regret missed opportunities.
We regret things that made us feel dumb.
We regret not telling someone we loved them more before they died.
We regret not spending our time more wisely, accomplishing more.
We regret procrastinating, not forming better habits, eating too many sweets, not writing the novel we always wanted to write, not reading all the books we planned to read, not mastering Russian or chess or the ninja arts.
We regret getting into bad relationships, or making mistakes in a past relationship.
Yes, we regret things, and sometimes it can be consuming.
Why We Have Regret
Simply put, we regret choices we make, because we worry that we should have made other choices.
We think we should have done something better, but didn’t. We should have chosen a better mate, but didn’t. We should have taken that more exciting but risky job, but didn’t. We should have been more disciplined, but weren’t.
We regret these choices, which are in the past and can’t be changed, because we compare them to an ideal path that we think we should have taken. We have an idea in our heads of what could have been, if only a different choice had been made.
The problem is that we cannot change those choices. So we keep comparing the unchangeable choice we actually made, to this ideal. This fantasy. It can’t be changed, and it will never be as good as the ideal. The unchangeable choice we made will always be worse. It spins around and around in our heads.
Why can’t we let it go? What’s so important that we need to keep thinking about it?
Why We Keep Thinking About Regret
I’ve noticed that I have a hard time not thinking about a bad choice because of how it conflicts with my self-identity.
We all have this idea of who we are: we’re good people. Perhaps we’re smart, or competent, or good-hearted. We make the best choices we can, of course, because we’re good people. Even if you have self-doubt and a bad self-image, you probably think you’re basically a good person.
And so when someone else attacks that identity — insults your competence, calls you a liar, says that you’re a cheater — it hurts! We get angry and defensive. We can’t stop thinking about this offense.
And when we believe we made a mistake, this also is an attack on that identity. We made a bad choice … why can’t we have been a better person and made a better choice? This bad choice conflicts with our idea that we’re a good person.
So the problem spins around and around, without resolution. There’s no way to solve this problem, because the bad choice can’t be changed and we can’t resolve the conflict with our self-identity.
How to Let Go of Regret
In examining why we have regret, and why it’s so hard to let go, we can see a couple of root causes that we can address:
- We compare past choices to an ideal.
- We have an ideal identity that conflicts with the idea of the bad choice.
These both revolve around ideals, which are not reality but our fantasies of how we’d like reality to go. They’re made up, and not helpful. In this case, these ideals are causing us anguish.
So the practice is to let go of the ideals, and embrace reality.
Here’s the reality of those two root causes:
- The choice we made in the past is done, and we can’t change it. And in fact there’s some good in the choice, if we choose to see it. Being able to make the choice at all is an amazing thing, as is being alive, and learning from our experiences, and being in the presence of other really great people, etc. And we can be satisfied with our choices and see them as “good enough” instead of always hoping for the perfect choices. Some choices will be great, some won’t be perfect, and we can embrace the entire range of choices we make.
- We are not actually always good, and in fact our identity can encompass a whole range: we are sometimes good, sometimes not, and sometimes somewhere in between. We make mistakes, we do good things, we care, we are selfish, we are honest, we sometimes aren’t honest. We are all of it, and so making a bad choice isn’t in conflict with that more flexible (and realistic) self-identity. It’s a part of it.
That’s all easier said than done, but when we find ourselves obsessing over past choices, we can 1) recognize that we’re falling into this pattern, 2) realize that there’s some ideal we’re comparing our choices and ourselves to, and 3) let go of these perfect ideals and embrace a wider range of reality.
This is a constant practice, but it helps us not look for perfection, not constantly review past choices, but instead find satisfaction in what we’ve done and focus in what we’re doing now.
Regrets are a part of life, whether we want them or not, whether we’re aware we’re having them or not. But by looking into the cause of regrets, and embracing the wide range of reality, we can learn to be satisfied with our choices, happier with the past and happier in the present moment.
And that is a choice you won’t regret.
[Ed. Note. Leo Babauta is the owner of ZenHabits.net, a website devoted to providing clear and concise wisdom on how to simplify your life. He’s also the author of, The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential, in Business and in Life.]