Everyone has regrets. We might not want to admit it, but we do. Maybe it’s a lost relationship, or a choice you didn’t make, or even something as simple as trying to sing Sinatra’s “My Way” at karaoke. Regrets come with life. They’re part of the process of learning from our mistakes.
The problem with regret is we’re not always good at letting it go. We let it make us miserable in the moment, which keeps us from appreciating the good things we have now.
So it’s ironic that in a study released in 2013, the group who should have the most regrets (because they’ve lived longer than the rest of us) is also the group that doesn’t worry about them. As a group, the elderly say regrets don’t do much good, and they’re much better at letting them go. Ironically, their biggest regret is worrying so much when they were younger.
I was reminded of this study recently when I played golf with an 86-year-old man named Al. As you might expect, Al didn’t move very fast, but he was efficient. He hit the ball straight and surprisingly long for his age, and we laughed a lot. I told Al I hoped to just be able to get out of bed when I’m 86, and he laughed and told me the key was not to worry too much about it.
As we chatted, I noticed Al’s attitude was upbeat about almost everything. When I mentioned that, he smiled and said, “People worry too much about stuff they can’t control. If they mess up, they worry too much about it.”
One of the reasons the elderly regret less is because they’ve seen so many problems come and go. They’ve seen more life than the young whippersnappers who are only experiencing things for the first or fourth or eighth time. They’ve learned the wisdom in Mark Twain’s quote: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
But as I say to clients in my office, it’s easier to identify a problem than to change it. So how can you help yourself let go of regrets?
First, you need to recognize them. When you feel annoyed about a lost opportunity or something that didn’t work out, step back, take a deep breath, and see the regret for what it is – a chance to learn from the mistake.
Second, ask yourself if you can change it. If so, go ahead and do it. If not, you’re just punishing yourself by holding on to it. Try to imagine what life might be like without the regret guiding your thoughts.
Third, keep track of what triggers those feelings. Do you regret losing a past love, for example, when you fight with your current partner? Regret is sometimes a sign that you need to work on a current issue or relationship instead of trying to fix an old one.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. It’s as important to forgive yourself as to forgive others. Trust that you’ve learned from your past to make better choices today.
I mentioned the recent study about regrets to Al. He nodded and said, “When someone makes a mistake, I ask, ‘Can you walk on water?’ Only one man ever has, so if you can’t, it makes you human, and you’re going to make mistakes like the rest of us.”
Al then missed a putt. He didn’t get mad or scowl; he just picked up his ball, shook his head with a smile, and moved on to the next tee.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist four Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)