if only…  living with regret


Which regrets are heavier to bear—the ones that involve mistakes made or the things we didn’t do?

Some people believe that everything happens for a reason, so there is no point in having regrets. 


But for others, looking retrospectively can lead us to linger on one poignant moment or period when we wish we’d done things differently and that nagging question “What if …?” repeats in our mind. 

Most people have regrets about something.  The most common themes of regret are about lost loves, family, education and career.  Interestingly, women tend to have more regrets about love while men tend to have more regrets about work.  

What are Regrets?  A regret is a painful experience of feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something from the past.  There are two ways people tend to frame their regrets: the things they did that they wish they had not (regrets of commission), or the things they wish they had done but didn’t (regrets of omission).

The difference between the two is psychological because we can think about the same regret either way - ‘If only I had not dropped out of school’ could also be expressed as ‘If only I had stayed in school’.  While these regrets are about exactly the same thing, regrets that lament not taking action (omission) tend to be more distressing than regrets about something we have done (commission).   Studies show regrets for things we did not do, those missed opportunities – the impact can last for years.  Here are some very common regrets of omission.

  • “I regret that I never fell in love with someone who was in love with me”
  • “I regret not spending more time with my parents before they died”
  • “I wish I had let go of old resentments towards family or friends”
  • “I regret not starting a family because I was so focused on my career”
  • “I wish I followed my dreams instead of doing what was expected of me”
  • “I wish I cared less of what others thought of me”
  • “I wish I had stood up to bullies in school and life”
  • “I wish I hadn’t worried so much about things”

What action can we take?  Emotional pain often accompanies regrets.  Particularly when the regret is over something profound or resulted in harm done to others or to our self.  The pain of regret can be helpful when it results in taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. However, regrets can also turn into negative rumination, self-blame and depression, that keeps us from fully engaging in life.

Sometimes regrets are rooted in poor mental health. So many people live with undiagnosed depression or anxiety that they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and fall into ill-fitting relationships and career choices. Over time, negativity tends to dominate their internal monologue and they begin to doubt themselves and this can lead to inaction (regrets of omission) that they later regret.

Often, people who harbour regrets think they would do things differently if presented with the same scenario again. But this is faulty logic.   We typically make our choices and decisions based on what we know at the time.

Instead, practising mindfulness can help, as mindfulness emphasises living in the present and not focusing on the past or future. After all, life is about living now. Mindfulness also teaches us to accept the feelings we have without agonising over them or pushing them away.  In the final analysis, life just is, not what we wish it was or could have been. 

If regrets have you feeling stuck, then a clinical psychologist can help resolve the emotional pain and open the door to engage more fully in life.

by Lydia Rigano