On Living With Regret

I’m going to be honest with you guys; I’ve never truly understood the whole “no regrets” life philosophy. I imagine it being spouted by the same people who say, “You only live once, right?” (a phrase so popular it’s been abbreviated for faster usage: YOLO).

In other words, you have some huge life decision to make and one of the choices is a little crazy. Maybe even a choice that will hurt someone you love, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you say YOLO and go for it. And even if it doesn’t work out, you stand by your choice, because you want to live a life of no regrets.

That might not be what people actually mean when they say these things, but it’s certainly what I imagine. Doesn’t “you only live once” seem sort of like a free pass for being a jerk and/or making questionable decisions? That’s just not how I roll.

And it’s not even how I want to live. Judy Clement Wall blogged about that here, and she said it well. Long story short: if you care about your life and the people in it, and you’re human and therefore susceptible to making mistakes, how you could you possibly live a life with no regrets?

I have regrets.

Some of them are small but persistent, like using careless wording online or waiting too long to catch up with an old friend. Others are more substantial, like hurting someone I love — saying or doing things that I can’t take back.

In fact, for my own personal consumption, I just made a list of the biggest regrets that still haunt me. Almost every single one of them is a person’s name.

There are mistakes I’ve made that fill me with regret like cold rain that will never be warmed. I can’t un-make them, and that kills me. I hate knowing that someone I love carries around hurt because of me. I hate it.

They say we should forgive ourselves as readily as we forgive other people, and I guess I’m just not very good at that. A lot of (all of?) the people on my list have hurt me too, but I don’t carry that around nearly the way I do my own regret. Some of the people on my list have been apologized to, and others are long-gone. Strangely, I don’t feel much of a difference between those I’ve spoken to and those I haven’t.

So how do we live with the bad choices we’ve made?

Not thinking about them helps, but sometimes the ghosts start groaning and can’t be ignored. Asking for a person’s forgiveness sometimes helps, but often a regret is too old or too seemingly trivial to be dredged up. Time helps, but even the oldest regrets stick with me. I still feel bad for the one time I cheated on a test back in second grade, as silly as that may sound. As if me as an adult has any power over what second-grade me did. But still, I wish I wouldn’t have done it.

I don’t have the answer. Maybe some people are better at self-forgiveness than I am. Maybe it comes down to loving ourselves as much as we love others, and knowing that we, too, are human and liable to make mistakes. Maybe the wisest of us can massage regrets away.

Or maybe regret is something that we all need to keep. Maybe living with regret is our way of remembering the lessons we learned in making the wrong choices. The pain and sorrow we feel about one decision is there to remind us of the possible outcomes of the next decision. Maybe each mistake haunts us so we remember not to make it again.

What do you think? Do you live a life of no regrets? Do you think that’s something worth striving for?

And if not, how do you live with your regret?

Share this:
This entry was posted in Food for Thought and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Dahnya Och

    Hi Annie! I’m so sorry. You sound so depressed in this post, and it makes me want to just give you a giant bear hug until it all goes away.

    Semicolon however comma… I’m one of those “no regrets” people.

    I’ll admit. The whole “no regrets” movement is a little sociopathic. The basic push behind the idea is that if you regret everything that happens to you in life, you’ll never be able to enjoy how things turn out. You cannot change the past, and wishing you could means that you’ll never be able to live in anything but the past. By pushing it behind you and learning to live with the past as unchangeable, you are able to live a much fuller life.

    There are many times that I wish I could go back and change something. Recently, I learned that a high school friend of mine just went through a terrible divorce. I wish that she and I still spoke, because I’d love to help her through it. But we don’t. We got into a very large fight because I told her that vanity publishing was stupid. Was I wrong? Well, no, but to her I was. We haven’t spoken in twelve years because of that one comment. I can’t regret it though, or else I will never be able to move on and grow as a person.

    Not saying that you can’t, mind you. Just that if I live with regrets, I will regress into this depressed ball of emo that can never become something more.

    I hope whatever it is that upset you gets better. If you need someone to rant at, please let me know.

    Also: I haven’t forgotten your poetry month challenge and I’m working on my sonnet. I’m just doing it at a pace that won’t kill me.

    <3 Dahnya

    • Hi Dahnya,

      I guess this post does make me sound depressed, doesn’t it? I’m actually not; I’m in a very good place right now – which is perhaps why I felt ready to blog about regret in general. But thank you so much for all of your support and sweetness. =)

      I’ve never been one of those “don’t let the past into your present” type people. I do totally respect living in the moment, and I can see where you’re coming from, but I also think there’s a difference between respecting and living with the past and wallowing in it. I’d like to think that – in spite of the possible impression otherwise due to this blog topic – I don’t wallow in mine. I just remember it, hold it in my heart, and use it to make wiser decisions.

      I totally sympathize with your story about your friend. And although you say you don’t let that hold you back, don’t you think it makes you more careful with your current friends? What I’m getting at is that lessons can’t be lessons if we bury them.

      I guess in the end we all have to devise our own philosophies and methods of dealing with things like regret. I suspect that in many ways we’re all talking about the same things using different frameworks.

      Thanks so much for your comment love!

  • -j-

    “Maybe each mistake haunts us so we remember not to make it again.”

    I like that. I think it might be right. Also, I think maybe there’s a distinction to be made between regret and forgiveness. I’m not sure – this is a subject I think (and journal) about a lot – but I think it’s possible to forgive ourselves, and still regret the hurt we caused. I have lots of smaller regrets and then one kind of big, staggering one. Getting to where I am now required me to do the hard work of understanding how I was able to do what I did, and then forgiving myself because I just couldn’t live in that guilty, self-flagellating place anymore.

    But forgiving myself doesn’t mean I don’t regret my actions. And weirdly (just to prove how complicated we are), being grateful for what happened because it launched me into a life-changing evolution also doesn’t exclude regret. I am grateful AND I regret what happened.

    I love your thought though. I like to think regret doesn’t have to be debilitating… it can just be a reminder about who we want to be.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, J. There must be a difference between regret and forgiveness. How did I not think of that? You seem to have said exactly what I was trying to puzzle my way toward:

      We can forgive ourselves without letting go of our regret.

      That’s exactly what I was trying (ineffectually) to say. Thanks for that.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    What a thought-provoking post. I don’t think any person can truly live a life of “NO” regrets. As you said, we’re human after all… I think your observations are astute: “Maybe living with regret is our way of remembering the lessons we learned in making the wrong choices.” I agree with this 100%. And the post reminded me of how pervasive the theme of “regret” is in fiction; without it, I think fiction would be rather boring. Regret does drive a character’s future actions/decisions (and in real life as well). So I think this recurring theme in literature is testament to the fact that regret is simply an innate component of human nature. But, yes, learning to forgive oneself is also critical to a person’s ultimate happiness… wallowing in regret is bad and stops forward progress.

    • So true. I love it when characters and fiction teach me things about real life, so I’m surprised I hadn’t put that connection together already. I work every day on characters who are motivated by their past before the book begins, so of course real people are the same way. No matter how much we might like to think otherwise, our past does drive our present. I think we just have to decide whether that past will drive us forward or backward. Well said, Melissa!

  • Oh, this topic! It’s very dear to me, I suppose. (My whole second novel is about choices and regret!)

    I do like the idea of “no regrets” and I mostly stand by it, but you don’t always get that choice. Sometimes you do something, and you don’t even realize how awful it was until it’s too late to make amends. That = regret. And sometimes those things can’t be fixed or taken back. The best you can hope for is to forgive yourself for it, but that doesn’t take back the regret either.

    Been there, done that. I think some of my worst regrets were from choices I wasn’t even aware I was making at the time.

    And the others – the ones you’re ultra-aware of at the time, the choices you dwell on and stew over for days or weeks (or years) – that’s where I think the “no regrets” mantra works better. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted a decision that I’ve stewed over and knew was the right choice for me at the time.

    It’s those hasty ones that always came back to haunt me!

    But yes, I absolutely agree that bearing the weight of our mistakes is how we remember not to make them again.

    • Wow, another great observation that I 100% agree with. I, like you, don’t regret big choices that I knew I was making at the time. Like sending my dad to that risky rehab place even though it was expensive and we knew it might not work, or deciding to graduate from college two years early to live with my husband even though I loved going to school. Those are things that I can’t regret, because like you said, they were the right choices for me at that time. But the things I still regret are definitely the things I was less aware of as choices.

      So well said, and a great insight. Thanks Laura!

  • Paula

    What a great post Annie! This is something I can really relate to and I bet most of us can because no matter what anyone says we ALL have regrets…

    So, the when I look back on situations I wish I’d handled better, it hurts but the pain also comes with knowledge. The knowledge of knowing what will happen if I make the same decision again protects me from having to relive that moment of regret as I make the same mistake twice.

    A person with a good heart falls and feels it deeply every time they fall, this is part of what makes them a good person- that they have enough heart to empathize with the people who they’ve let down, but the thing is they learn how to get up and keep going. Reminding myself of that helps me to not become overly depressed.

    Life is about growth and with growth comes the process of falling and getting back up. If we have regrets, that’s a good thing because it’s a sign of growth and a sign that we’re wholly alive!

    Thanks again for your post!

    • I think we all have regrets too. Or at least, as you said, all people “with a good heart” do. If we care about others, how can we not feel bad when we mess up? I think acknowledging that and learning to pick yourself back up are two different things, so I totally agree with you. Moving on = good, and learning from regrets = good. Thanks Paula!

  • Patrick

    Mistakes or things undone… I like to be aware of and sorry for mistakes I have made. But the moving finger writes and I cannot, without a time machine, do anything about that mistake. I can only sincerely apologize.

    However, I like to reserve the word rerget for things undone, things I could have done, maybe should have done. And therefore I want to try and live a life with no regrets. I have few if any.

    It is like having a bucket list. Too many things on the list and the whole concept is just frustrating. A bucket list of one or two things keeps everything in perspective and in the end, when the end is near, you can always say with a smile, I did everything I wanted but a couple of things that evidently were not that important, or I would have done them too.

    So, as I look back at all the great things that have happended in my life, the places I went, The people I met, the loves I shared, the things I did do right…I have few if any regrets.

    And, like a great Country and Western song line, I can say, “I never intentionally hurt anyone.” And to those I did, unknowing or unaware, with no preconceived intent, I only ask that if you can you for give me, and if not, maybe you can understand, I am just a man.

    Long ago I learned to forgive people that hurt me. I don’t have time to carry their mistakes.

    • See, I knew there was a good, intelligent reason that people use this expression, and you’ve explained it so well. For you, “regret” means something different than it does for me. To me, it means wishing I could take something back. For you, it only means wishing you had done something when you did nothing. So yes, that does narrow down the list of potential “regrets” quite a bit, doesn’t it? Thank you for explaining that thought process to me!

      And I do agree about hurting people being (for the most part) unintentional – or at least careless rather than premeditated. Apologizing and moving on is the healthy thing to do, although it does hurt when apologies aren’t accepted and/or the person is gone before the apology can be truly extended. That, to me, is the hardest type of “regret” to deal with.

      So well put, Patrick. Thank you for weighing in; I’m loving all of these thoughts and discussions!

  • I think I’m like you, in that I never really understood the “no regret” philosophy, but I’ve never actually stopped to consider it either. Mostly, I guess, because I try to avoid thinking about the things I regret — and I can’t imagine or can’t allow myself to not regret them, if that makes sense.

    As you said: “Maybe living with regret is our way of remembering the lessons we learned in making the wrong choices.” How is it possible to move forward without regrets?

    • Yeah, I think you’re right. Which is maybe why this post came off as a little depressing — I forgot to specify that I *usually* don’t think about these things. Because I agree with you about not wanting to not regret, but also not wanting to be consumed by it. So yes, balance. It always seems to come back to that, doesn’t it?

  • Addyrae Heldt

    The mindset you show here is so similar to how I think! I don’t think I’m capable of being a ‘no regrets’ person.

  • Pegab

    “No regrets” is one of those almost meaningless phrases such as “Just say no to drugs”. I imagine the original intent was good, but it’s so distilled as to be just words. They are catchy words, though, and great for initiating an excellent discussion! As an older person who has a long lifetime of regrets, I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject. My regrets have caused me great emotional anguish and depression. But did they really cause the anguish or was there a self-loathing and sense of inadequacy that ultimately led to most of the regrets? I think the latter!
    Like all of us, I am the product of my society and family. My family’s outlook/philosophies were complicated, flawed, and mostly fear-based. There were love and good intentions, though. Like you, Annie, almost all of my regrets are about people I hurt. I’ve apologized to so many of them and sometimes I’ve over-done it. After years and years of tears, anguish, and personal work on loving myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that every apology must be followed by a change in my behavior – a demonstration, if you will – that shows I really mean that apology. In particular, the only real apology I can give my family is to show them how I’ve changed. So, my hope is that when they see me treat them with respect, they will remember me as someone who did more than just regret.

    • I agree that it is one of those catch-phrases that can easily lose meaning – or, in this case, easily become skewed to mean something different than the original intention, which might be the cause of some people using it as an excuse to make careless choices.

      I also totally agree that following up regret with new choices is the only way to show change – and is in fact good proof that regret serves a purpose. For me, though, many of the people on my list aren’t even in my life anymore (mostly friends I’ve drifted away from, etc.), so I can’t exactly correct my mistakes or show them I’ve changed. Maybe that’s why it bothers me so much… because they may never know I even regret what happened.

      Great thoughts; thanks for sharing. I really admire your desire to rise above your regrets, both within yourself and for the people you care about.

  • Amanda Myre

    Man, great topic. I hadn’t really encountered the “no regrets” attitude until meeting someone who embraces it. And she’s great, really. She makes good decisions generally speaking, and she definitely isn’t a jerk. I don’t think she’s avoided regret, either. I think for her, the philosophy basically boils down to “don’t pass up cool opportunities.” Mostly, like Patrick, she seems to regard regrets as things undone.

    I never say that I want to live life with no regrets, because it strikes me as impossible no matter what regret means to you. And I think of regret the way you do – as a persistent guilty feeling over something I can’t change. I think you’re absolutely right that it exists as a teaching mechanism. That’s a big part of what emotions are for, I think – highlighting things in your memory that you might want to learn from.

    At the same time, one can only dwell so much! Of course, that’s easy for me to say, since my life has been very easy so far and my regrets are pretty tame. But I still think it’s true. I’ll just have to re-learn it later if/when something does go wrong.

    • Thanks, Amanda! I think I agree that no regrets is ultimately impossible, but I can also respect the thought-process of people like your friend who use it as a personal mantra.

      Yes, dwelling. Dwelling can become obsessive, which is rarely (never?) good. My regrets so far are actually pretty tame too, I imagine, in comparison with some of the big ones you hear about (cheating on spouses, physical violence, crimes, that sort of thing), and I’m grateful for that. I rarely think about them in regular life, and even more rarely dwell. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to deal with large-scale regrets like that – although, as you mentioned, I’m sure we all have huge regrets coming. It’s human; it’ll have to happen eventually. Hopefully then I can learn from those mistakes as I’ve learned from the ones I’ve made so far.

  • I have no regrets. I look at it this way: what’s been done can’t be undone. I try to always move forward. I’ve had some regrettable encounters with people, but I always give us a second shot and hope they give me the same. Sometimes I try for a second or third shot. I tend to believe that everything is fixable.

    So for me, living with no regrets just means not dwelling on things I can’t fix and fixing the things I can. (And most importantly, not letting myself get me into those moments in the first place. Unfortunately, they still happen. :()

    Great post, Annie!

    • Thanks Nina! I certainly admire your desire to fix the things you regret. That’s a great way to live life, and I wish more people had that perspective.

    • N.M. stole a bit of my thunder here. Yes, I see it as more of a “No Fear” motto, that you take a risk. Then, regardless of consequences, you keep moving forward. BUT. If you’ve wronged someone, you need to make that right. If you’ve failed at something, you need to learn from it. If in acting in one area you’ve neglected something else, you need to take ownership of that.

      The danger of “No Regrets” is it hints at “No Accountability,” which I think people who are responsible and loving chafe at, with good reason.

      I love posts that make me think!

      • Ah, yes that all makes sense. And I agree that “no regrets” hints at “no accountability.” I actually like your “no fear” much better; we should start that trend instead! Thanks Patrick!

  • Kelsey M

    Wow! What great comments! Your tweet about this post reminded me that I wanted to swing by and drop my two cents in the bucket.

    I definitely have a couple of regrets in my life… not many, but a couple. And while I don’t wish I’d made a different choice, in that every choice has brought me to who I am today, blah, blah, blah… those couple of times I did something that had a lasting result that I don’t love… I hate them.

    That being said, I think a lot of people would peg me as a “NO REGRETS” type of person because I often make bold choices, or choices based on gut instincts, or make choices that have a high (percieved) level of risk.

    Even so, I know I’m highly analytical. If I’m not sure what to do, I think about it in circles until none of it makes sense anymore. Till I’m blue in the face. Till I don’t even remember what I was trying to decide in the first place.

    BUT, if I have a gut feeling that pulls me in one way or another, I follow it. BAM. Just like that… because it’s likely not a life-changing decision, and so, I tend to default to my gut.

    I guess I agree that we have to forgive ourselves for stupid choices… And I do think that I’m good at refusing to waste my limited energy on wishing things were different that I can not change. I suppose I should be grateful for that. 🙂

    • Yeah, I think your point about “but if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be where I am now” might be another thing people mean when they say “no regrets.” But I think you can appreciate where you are and how you’ve gotten there and still regret the results of your choices.

      You do seem like a no regrets type of person – especially in the way that Patrick mentioned of regrets meaning things undone rather than choices made. Your tendency to embrace high-risk chances fits hand in hand with jumping at a once-only opportunity. So yeah, I can totally see that.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Kelsey!

  • Thank you for writing this! You wrote EXACTLY how I feel.

    Your regret about cheating on a test in the second grade doesn’t sound silly to me – I have regrets from that long ago too (and I’m 52). Like the time I zipped my mom’s spine with my thumb as a joke while she was reading a bulletin board out in public. It was a cool, fun thing to do – a thing all the kids did – but my mom was the wrong person to do it to. She was bewildered and I’m afraid I might have hurt her, too. But I can’t be sure, because the amount of REGRET I have about it tends to blow it all out of proportion in my mind.

    (She probably had far, far worse things done by my three brothers, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.)

    My biggest regrets can still keep me awake at night with my guts in a knot and my face burning with shame.

    I don’t know what the answer is either, but I like that you posed the questions. It sure does seem like a waste of energy to feel guilty about things that happened years and years ago (plus I’ve sometimes found out I was agonizing over something that the other person didn’t even think was a big deal – or they actually found it HELPFUL – sheesh!). But you may also be right: regrets help us learn about mistakes we don’t want to repeat. I do believe I’ve gotten better over the years, based on not wanting to repeat my old regrets. Not perfect. Not unblemished with sin. Just better.

    • The story about your mom totally resonated with me. It’s that type of silly, innocent thing that we (or at least you and me) remember later and wish we hadn’t done. And, like you, knowing that someone else has done worse or that I was young at the time doesn’t really make it better.

      I like to believe that we all get better at making good choices as we learn from our bad ones. I’m happy to hear that you feel you are improving in that way. Thanks for sharing, Milli.

  • Beautifully said, Annie. I especially relate to the fact that most of your regrets are about people you might have hurt, friendships that have ended, etc. Really this whole piece spoke to me.

  • Barb

    Hi Annie! Wow, I just happened to read something about Passages Malibu and found the link to your most heart wrenching story….and why, you might ask was I looking at Passages Malibu…well, I saw one of those commercials last night on TV and just got so insensed about “their” philosophy…you see I had 26 years of sobriety on May 19. I did not go to anything like Passages…I went to AA meetings and held on to those tables and never left! Alas, I diverse from what I wanted to say to you….you and your brother did everything you were suposed to do with what you had to work with. Is the system a failure…yes, at times it is…and in reading your blog, I was so saddened by all the detours you had to face. We must all do what we need to do and do it to the best of our ability…if that is not enough, then we pray that others will open their hearts, eyes, and ears and step up and make things right!

    In regard to your latest blog on Regret…I have had many regrets in my 65 years of life. Most of my biggest regrets were behind my drinking. I cannot relive those regrets, for they happened a long time ago and my life is much different today! One in particular, and this was when I was sober, was not being able to see my mom before she passed. I had called her right before she died, she was suffering from dementia and said some very hurtful things to me and hung up. Two weeks later she died and I regretted that I had not been able to tell her I loved her. I worked through my regret and am at peace today.

    I guess what I wanted to tell you is that regret is different for everyone…some people can’t get through it and they live in it all their lives, letting it affect everything around them. Other people just let it go and move on. We’re all different, as you well know, and experience things differently. I think you have a good handle on what your regret is and why you feel they way you do…but at the end of the day, if you can put your head on your pillow and be at peace, you are doing okay!!

    It sounds like your life is full and you have wonderful people supporting you and that is so important Annie!! I am so blessed that I was able to read your blog and meet you through the Internet! My God works in mysterious ways!!! May your life be filled with abundant blessings and much love and happiness always.

    God Bless,

    • Hi Barb. Thank you for all of your sweet sentiment. I feel your pain in your story about not being able to say goodbye to your mother before she died. I hear that so often about losing loved ones, and I know it’s one of the most difficult regrets to deal with.

      Congratulations on 26+ years of sobriety! What an incredible accomplishment.

      I really like how you said, “but at the end of the day, if you can put your head on your pillow and be at peace, you are doing okay!” I totally agree. I do have regrets, and I’m not willing to let them go completely because I think they make me part of who I am, but I’m also not willing to let them run my life. I sleep pretty soundly these days, and I’m grateful for that.

      Thanks so much, Barb. I wish you all of the best.

  • vanessa

    Thank you! Bits of clarity for me…. 🙂

  • freschetta

    I like your theory on how not getting past a regret is a way of helping us not make the same mistake. I have regrets, they are all on hurting those I care about, escpecially ones I love. It seems as time goes by and forgiveness is granted, regret is lifted to the point that I think about it less and less and eventually not at all,.That is when I make the same mistake and all of the prior regrets rush in like a wave over me, kicking me in the heart for allowing myself to do the same thing and hurt the one I love yet again. It hurts me far worse than I could ever hurt someone, to know that I hurt them. As much as it hurts to keep such regrets, I think it is almost neccessary. I really enjoyed your post and thoughts.

  • Katy

    I try and live the whole YOLO/no regrets, but in a different way. I try to make the decisions I think will be for the best, but if they don’t work out, I can’t time travel–if I can’t fix it, I can’t fix it. The only thing you can do with regrets is either get over them and admit the past is the past, or you can let them swallow you and keep you from enjoying the things you don’t regret. 🙂

    • That sounds pretty good. There’s definitely a difference between embracing your past and wallowing in it, and I try not to wallow. I also try not to run from emotions, though, and for me that means acknowledging that my mistakes still hurt sometimes. Still, letting go is probably something I could get better at.