How Reviewing Your Regrets Can Transform Your Life
Finding acceptance for the things we regret can help us live a better life
As she turns 60, psychotherapist Kate Graham urges anyone - of whatever age - to take stock
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A few years ago Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse summarised in a very successful blog [i], the top five regrets she heard from people dying:
- I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
- I wish I hadn't worked so hard
- I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish that I had let myself be happier
There are other similar blogs around, with slightly different lists, but all written from the perspective of older people, people near the end of their life, looking back. But why wait until it’s too late?
I have just turned 60 and that, for many people, is a time of great change and transformation. Between the ages of 55 and 65 people are changing working patterns, adjusting to children growing up, some having grandchildren, women are coming out of the menopause, health issues may be starting to appear, for yourself or others close to you. And mortality, our own, that of our parents, and that of our friends and family appears on the horizon, and often comes close in a way that may not have happened before. And whilst it is normal to fear death at various points in our lives, Yalom [ii] suggests that this anxiety is enhanced when we have a sense that we may not have lived our life fully. Death anxiety can be compounded by a fear of meeting the regrets we have about our lives when it feels too late to do anything about them.
All this means that we are in transition, and in any transition it makes sense to look back and take stock, before we build forward into the adventure of the rest of our life that remains to us. The reality is that at the age of 55 or more, we are likely to have lived more of our life than we still have left to live. Conventional jobs and employment tend to be coming to an end, even if retirement ages are increasing. We have lived a lot of our life, so there is plenty to look back on.
I should be clear here that I am not advocating brooding over what might have been, or beating ourselves up for the mistakes we have made. That wouldn’t be helpful, and the purpose of this article is to help us approach this review rather differently, in a constructive way. And taking stock isn’t just about the things that we regret, it is very much about the decisions we have made that we are pleased about, and all the things we like about our lives. However, regrets can have a niggling, even corrosive effect and there is a real opportunity in looking at them, to find a greater acceptance of ourselves, and thus greater peace and happiness.
Other possible lives
All the way through our lives we have made choices, an infinite number of small and large choices that have created the life that we have lived so far. The big choices such as where we lived, whether or what we studied, what jobs we worked in, who we loved, who we lived with, and an infinite number of smaller choices that we are less aware of that will have shaped our lives.
We could have lived any number of different lives, but somehow we ended up with the one we have lived. But that wondering “what if….” may remain. This form of regret challenges to us to accept the choices we have made.
Mistakes we made that hurt ourselves or others
However hard we try not to hurt others, it is inevitable that we will make decisions or take actions along the way that upset or hurt others, whether we do this intentionally or by accident.
One such instance is the decision I made, a few days after my mothers’ death, not to attend a very close friend’s wedding. I know this hurt her deeply, and I also know that at that time I was utterly wiped out by the loss of my mother and the stress of the period leading up to her death. Looking back, and having experienced the impact of that decision on our friendship, if I could live that moment again I hope I would muster the strength to go, and just take large amounts of tissues with me, and get through it, for them.
But at the time, I made a difficult decision in the best way that I could. Mental distress is much harder for people to understand than a physical problem. This form of regret requires perspective, and compassion to ourselves, and for the situation, so that we are able to move towards forgiving ourselves and as appropriate, other people.
Patterns of beliefs and behaviours that have shaped our relationships
This is possibly the most powerful of the three, the beliefs that control the choices we see as available to us, and the many micro decisions and choices we make every day. These are patterns of belief, such as “I don't really count, it wont matter if I'm there or not” that hide behind others more palatable beliefs, such as “I'm grieving, I need to look after myself”, in the example above.
We have a choice about these patterns, even if they are deeply entrenched: we don't have to wait until we are dying to wish that we might have expressed our feelings more honestly. We can change these beliefs, if we want to, and we find the right support to do so. Tackling these regrets means looking at what we can really do, that is, finding our power, our agency.
How do we look at these regrets without getting bogged down in self-recrimination?
This is a three-stage process, requiring
- acceptance – this is what is, this is me
- compassion – what was going on for me at the time? What choices did I feel I have?
- And agency – so what am I going to do about it? Can I do anything?
The Midnight Library (Haig, 2020) is a wonderful example of acceptance, after a painful exploration of all the possible lives the protagonist might have lived, she is able to see her actual life for what it is, and I would recommend it to anyone struggling with self-acceptance. I believe acceptance is something we have to practice. It’s not the same as denial, or rejection, where we act as if it never happened and push this aspect of ourselves, or a situation away. When we are accepting ourselves, an event, a situation, it isn’t about letting it go, but more about letting it be.
Compassion is about bringing kindness to ourselves, which is something that many of us struggle greatly with [iii]. Practising self-compassion is like imagining that you are telling your story to the kindest person you know, someone who just wants to listen to you, someone who believes in you. If you have an actual person you can bring to mind so much the better, otherwise you can imagine a character from a book or film, or from your imagination. Or even better, talk these instances through with a real person, a friend who you can trust to really listen, or a therapist.
Compassion, and another person to hear us and respond to us is important because often these experiences, the regrets that are still with us, that have “bite” are sticking around because there is some shame attached. So when I think about the example above I notice a rather icky feeling that somehow I was a wimp, that I was weak, that I was selfish, that I didn't care enough about my friend, that I betrayed her. These feelings hung between us, my assumption being that this was what she thought of me, which may be all or partly true. The point was, as I found in the years that followed, that it was unforgivable, a feeling that is deeply shameful.
Shame is created in relationship – and dissolved in relationship, which is why talking about these things really helps. When we look back, and acknowledge what we did, and what we didn't do, a number of things happen. The process of review helps us to see events in a wider context, to see other perspectives. Looking back I can see that in this case my friend might have recognised my mental distress (so much harder to understand than a broken leg), expressed her hurt and eventually decided to forgive me, recognising that my relationship with my mother was very different from hers.
As we look back we can also start to see the patterns of beliefs that may have shaped our lives. If I had fully appreciated how much I really did matter to my friend, might I have behaved differently? Quite possibly, and that underlying belief that I don't really matter that much to other people has been around all my life, and has become one of those protective films that shade some of the light that might otherwise shine around me. It like many other limiting beliefs are a defence, a protection, something that kept us safe when we were little, but are less needed now.
And we can then start to find our agency. As we identify some of the beliefs that have controlled our lives we can ask whether we want them to continue having such power over us. We can explore whether we need them any more, or whether we need them to the same extent. This is challenging work, and best done with a companion, whether a friend wishing to travel a similar journey, or a professional counsellor or therapist.
This is just half the process of taking stock. As we look over our lives, noticing the choices and decisions we made, it isn’t just the regrets we notice but the good things as well. Reviewing our regrets gives them space for expression, which can weaken their power and need for space. This process not only allows space for all the things that we are pleased about ourselves, but through the acceptance and compassion, our memories and life story becomes less polarised, less good or bad, more complex and nuanced. More unique, which is as it should be, and a great starting point for living the rest of your life, and living fully in however that means for you.
[ii] Yalom, I (2008) Staring at the Sun