[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Once upon a time, my parents took me to the zoo. This day is full of memories which have stuck with me ever since—the sunshine, the excitement, the ice cream… even holding hands with my dad, watching eagerly as he unfolded the map.
One of the sharpest and most vivid memories is of the dolphins. In particular, there was a moment when a dolphin surfaced from the pool with a loud “kkk-rkrkkk-kkk-rkkk” sound.
“Look! He’s saying hello,” said my mum, pointing. “Why don’t you wave back?”
I liked the idea, but I was too shy. I sat on my hands until the dolphin went away.
I spent that night crying, overflowing with guilt as I imagined how sad the dolphin must have been that I ignored its kindly greeting.
I was twenty-eight years old.
The Past is Unchanging
I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I wasn’t really twenty-eight. I was, maybe, five or six. But I couldn’t resist the punchline.
Right now, I regret adding it. Perhaps the humour detracts from the emotional impact of the story. But, just like everything that has already happened, it now cannot be changed.
Collecting regrets, big and small, is human. As multipotentialites, we have plenty of opportunities for regret. Every choice we make—by necessity—excludes all the others. (A wise, handsome man once wondered if this was perhaps our biggest fear.)
This means that if we pursue education, we lose time we could spend on career. Pursuing career loses time that could go on family. And pursuing this job means not pursuing all those other jobs… and…
We often focus on the difficulties of making these decisions. But what about decisions that have already been made, that we can’t let go of, even long after the time for choice has passed? Those collected regrets can mount up painfully.
Clearly, a troubled relationship with the past is not going to be healed overnight. But perhaps there are some alternate perspectives which could help.
Recognize When We’re Regretting
Regret has the most power when we don’t recognize it.
Simply admitting to ourselves that we’re engaging in the world’s most pointless activity—battling reality by wishing that the past was different—can be enough to free us.
After all, spending now regretting the past is also wasting the present! Later on, I’ll regret spending so much time regretting… and the cycle continues, absurdly.
If we want to spend time in that cycle, that’s up to us. But most of us would prefer not to, so simply recognizing when it’s happening can be enough.
Three Ways to Reframe Regret
In extreme cases, the slightest reminder of paths not travelled can be agonizing. A disillusioned ex-actor avoids going to the theatre. A frustrated astronomer never looks up at night. An increasingly middle-aged man cries at the thought of a sad dolphin.
Those emotions are all valid, and need to be felt, without allowing them to rule over us. But there are ways to maintain perspective while processing regretful feelings.
1. Realize you’re pining for a fantasy
Part of the trouble is that it’s an unfair fight. Regret means comparing a known quantity—our life as it truly exists—against any alternative we can possibly imagine… and boring old reality is always going to lose that fight.
It may help to reframe the story by focusing instead on the good things which arose from the path we actually took. For example, if you had chosen differently, who are the people in your life now that you never would have met?
Recognizing the real good things which came from the path we chose can be an antidote to the imaginary goods we conjure when we fantasize about alternatives.
2. Remember How You Felt
Sometimes we forget how much we’ve changed since we made a decision. But our past selves might as well be entirely different people. A career change which seems reckless to our present selves might have seemed like an exciting adventure to our old self. And there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s how the universe inevitably must work.
(Unless we never grow or change whatsoever, but that seems like a recipe for a different regret, not no regret.)
Our past selves made the best decision they could with the information available. Short of inventing a time machine, there’s no point beating our present selves up for knowing what our past self couldn’t.
3. Consider ‘Your Parallel Universe Regrets’
There’s something paradoxically freeing about how universal regret is. There’s always something to regret—and that’s just as true for the parallel-universe version of us who lived the life we’re jealous of right now!
For example, if you’re regretting not travelling enough, imagine the version of you who’s sick of travelling and wished they’d put down deeper roots. If you’re regretting a boring career choice, imagine the version of you who wishes they had a predictable, stable work environment.
The grass is always greener works both ways.
When Regrets Can be Helpful
Many, perhaps most, regrets are pointless. All they do is cause pain, and we’d be better off without them.
But some regrets can nudge us into making positive changes right now. The way to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful regrets is with a question: can this regret spur me into action right now?
Regretting not exercising over the last few months could fuel my desire to exercise today. Or decades of regret over not going to grad school could lead me to wonder if I want to go now. Maybe I do!
If the regret suggests no action—and never could lead to action—then holding onto it serves little purpose. (We’re still allowed to, of course. It just might not help.)
Perhaps today could be a good time to let go of a regret or two. Or to take action to prevent collecting another.
I hope you don’t regret reading this article. But I’m heading out now—I’ve got dolphins to apologize to.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.