Regret: A New Perspective on One of Our Toughest Emotions

I may not know you personally, but we have something in common. A shared experience that every human being has experienced and can bond over. I’m talking about regret.


When was the last time you identified a regret? The regret could be about not eating enough vegetables yesterday or forgetting to buy those new shoes you’ve been ogling before they went out of stock. Small regrets like these arise every day.


But we have big regrets, too. Wishing we chose a different college major or went to college at all. Regretting the time we didn’t spend with a cherished family member or friend. Seventy percent of people said their regrets were for something they didn’t do to reach their personal goals. Another 30% regretted things they thought they should have done.


The universality of regret

No matter what your regrets are, the fact is, we all have them. Regret is a universal human emotion transcending every age, gender, race, and socioeconomic level. Every person on Earth has felt regret, and almost all of us can pinpoint a “big regret” in our lives.


Think about that, when was the last time someone asked you about your biggest regret? Although an admittedly personal question, you were probably prepared with a response because you’ve thought about and maybe even discussed it before. And when you did, how did your regret make you feel?


The feeling of regret

Because for many, regret evokes defeatist emotions and negative self-talk. Our regrets give us a feeling of loss for what would have, could have, or should have been. And those feelings inevitably turn on us, causing us to blame ourselves for the mistakes and missed opportunities of the past.


And that’s precisely where regret is rooted: the past. There’s no changing what has already happened and no way to go back in time and make things right. Living with regret and not being able to let go of the past can have catastrophic consequences.


You can’t yearn forever for what might have been. Remaining in the cycle of regret will lead to deep sorrow, self-degradation, anxiety, and depression. Over time, these symptoms will seep into your body and begin to manifest physically, too. Trust me, carrying your regrets with you is not a way to live.


But we can’t totally avoid regret, right? Absolutely not. Regret is a normal side effect of the human experience, an inevitable part of living a whole and varied life. What you can do is look at regret from a different perspective.


The benefits of regret

I challenge you to respond to regret differently. Just because regret can stir up negative emotions doesn’t make regret a negative emotion. Regret is simply misunderstood.


Regret plays a vital function in developing your sense of self. Regret gives you critical information about what you really want from your life. And this is important—how many times have you been unsure of what you wanted until you felt regret?


Understanding what you truly desire can be a challenging concept to unpack. Still, regret gives us a visceral look into our deepest desires.


Beyond these cursory insights, regret is an opportunity to collect important information. Through regret, you can learn how to handle a situation better, find the strength in your voice to speak up in the future, and even become a better negotiator.


Shift your perspective so you no longer see regret as a negative force in your life. Instead, lean into regret’s invaluable insights about your progress toward becoming your whole self.


The remedy of regret

Despite the many ways regret can help you, don’t seek opportunities to experience regret. After all, regret is usually the result of a mistake, and you should avoid mistakes if possible.


The truth is, a lack of courage often causes regret. And I, like so many people, had to learn this the hard way.


The original plan I had for my life—or rather that my father had for my life—was to become a doctor. This wasn’t my heart’s desire, which is why I’m not a doctor today.


For me, college was a grind. As a pre-med major, I was taking required classes I didn’t enjoy, and frankly, I wasn’t good at. I even took the MCATs not once, but twice! Thankfully, I didn’t get much farther after the MCATs before realizing I needed to align my head with my heart.


For far too long, I didn’t have the courage to speak up and step outside of the expectations my parents had of me. I allowed myself to accept the narrative they wrote, and I lacked the self-confidence to courageously rest in my own decision-making. Looking back, I don’t even know if I allowed myself to have a choice.


Do I regret the time and energy I wasted chasing this empty dream in college? Yes. But with that regret also comes poignant perspective about what I did and should do with my life. That journey has taken a lot longer than I imagined—after all, finding your purpose isn’t a straight line or an obvious path for most.


But my story isn’t unique. Fear, poor self-esteem, and negative-self talk will almost always try to get in your way. But you can choose courage over regret.


Author Lewis Carrol once said, “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have and the decisions we waited too long to make.”


Taking chances, starting or building relationships, and taking the road less traveled takes courage. And even though that courage can be hard to find in the short term, the long-term payoff of pursuing your happiness and finding your purpose is well worth the risk.


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