16 Ways to Deal with Regret and how to get Past It

16 Ways to Deal with Regret and how to get Past It

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention . . .” sang Frank Sinatra.

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Or then again, maybe more than a few!

In our culture of late we’ve seen a surge in the YOLO idea—You Only Live Once—and contained within that is to have no regrets. Especially with the youth culture, the idea is so pervasive in popular songs.

Then again, we all knew everything when young too, no?

But can you actually live without regret?  And is it wise to do so?  Or does that mean you’re lying to yourself?

We know where the latter gets you.

In 2012, palliative-care nurse Bronnie Ware published The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. And while of course not a scientific study, I’d say she has as good a grasp on this as anybody, with the course of her life’s work, day by day.  I’ve had the honor of dealing with the passing of loved ones, and with the Hospice nurses who aided our journeys.  They are simply angels of mercy.

The top five Ms. Ware found on those deathbeds:

  1.   I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

  1.   I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

  1.   I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

  1.   I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

  1.   I wish that I had let myself be happier.

”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Most interesting about this list is that the regrets all center around what people didn’t do, rather than what they did.  Which bears out a study by Morrison and Roese that showed regretting inaction lasted longer than action regrets.  And that the feelings of loss were far greater in those regrets of inaction as well.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had each of these regrets at some point in my life.  And, learned from each and every one as I worked through them.  I’m still grappling with number 2!  But the others I’m very conscious about while building my life.  In part because I know the pain of regret when not doing so.  Which is something I’d rather avoid 🙂

Long ago when studying myths, I came across Nietzsche’s philosophy of “amor fati,” or love of one’s fate. He wrote, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, There is an important idea in Nietzsche, of Amor fati, the ‘love of your fate,’ which is in fact your life. As he says, if you say no to a single factor in your life, you have unraveled the whole thing.”

So how do we square the idea of YOLO with human regret, and avoid those big 5 at the end?

Nietzsche’s work focused on waking people up from their daily habits, from the gilded cage of daily life, which make us creatures of comfort.  The vehicle for people to wake themselves up, to become conscious, to change their lives, he said was regret.

And he had a 2-sided method for dealing with it, which incorporates both sides, and oddly sounds like the heart of a 12-step group:

  1.   If you choose wrong, forget it.  Accept it and love it.
  2.   From now on, live with constant awareness of your mortality.  And choose differently.

Here are 9 of ways for how to deal with life regrets:

  1.    Find Your Life’s Purpose.

Nothing, absolutely nothing opens up one’s world like living a life on purpose.  That’s where creativity and inspiration live—where you feel literally inspired by the gods.

“Follow your bliss,” Campbell so famously said.

  1.    Quite Being a Victim.

Anytime you blame people or circumstances for your unhappiness, you’ve just given them the power to make you unhappy again.  Because it’s not about them, in the end.   It’s about you and your choices.

“How would your life be different if…You stopped validating your victim mentality? Let today be the day…You shake off your self-defeating drama and embrace your innate ability to recover and achieve.”Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

  1.    Let Go of the Past.

By clinging to those past mistakes, you keep them alive and flourishing in your psyche.  Which has the odd effect of causing you to repeat them.  Yes, understanding past actions helps you to move past them.  And that’s the point—moving past them.  Because dwelling on them, obsessing, just keeps you there.  And worse, blocks you from the happiness before you.

Let go. Why do you cling to pain? There is nothing you can do about the wrongs of yesterday. It is not yours to judge. Why hold on to the very thing which keeps you from hope and love?”–Leo Buscaglia

  1.    Banish Excuses.

Didn’t reach the goal you were shooting for?  Yep, figuring out why is imperative. But it’s so easy to start with excuses.  And those are never the issue.  They exist to cause you not to take responsibility for the issue.

Filled with reasons why you can’t do something?

As author John Belfort says, “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.”

  1.    Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Take risks.  I know, most of us are risk averse!  I know I am.  But it’s when I dive into the scary waters of the unknown that the magic arrives.  Yep, this isn’t terribly comfortable, but that’s when you know you should do it.

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.”Brian Tracy

  1.    Appreciate.

This sounds like a no-brainer, right?  But so often we judge rather than appreciate.  And those two things produce radically different energy.  By turning the other cheek, so to speak, by seeking the good, the positive, in those around you, connections grow stronger.

By doing so with your own life, the positive flourishes.

      “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  1.    Let Go of What If

Isn’t that a tough one?  It’s so easy to get caught up in: What if my life were different? What if such and such had worked out?  What if I’d succeeded at x?”

But, it isn’t and it didn’t.

By dwelling on what didn’t or hasn’t happened, by blaming life today on that, you’ve just flown out of the Present, back into the Past or the Future, and aren’t living your life.

      “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”Ralph Waldo Emerson

  1.    Choose to be Happy.

Because happiness is a choice.  No matter your circumstances, you can still wake up every day and choose to be happy. Study after study after study in the last few decades have proven this.  So why not take advantage of this?

      Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals choose the way they think.” —Martin Seligman

  1.    Never, Ever, Ever, Ever Give Up on Yourself.

You are who you have.  No matter if you live in the worst conditions imaginable, have just been dealt a horrendous defeat, have suffered losses too awful to count, you’re still here.

You’re still in the game.

No one knows which way the fates will turn tomorrow, or even today.

You are worth it.  There’s a reason you’re here.  Pat yourself on the back, dust yourself off, and keep living.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

William Ernest Henley, Echoes of Life and Death

This Post Has 37 Comments

  1. A few months ago I cited Bronnie Ware in a blog on Aging Gracefully. I remember thinking about my own long life and what my regrets were. The only one I have that is still strong is I wish I was as wise years ago as I am now cause I might have stayed married. I’m very happy with my new husband of 16 years, but I know my family would have thrived had we stayed intact.

    I am working on banishing excuses & happy to say I use the tools I’ve acquired to not regret any of the other areas. I truly want my tombstone to read, “She was all used up.”

    1. OMG–I love your tombstone epitaph, Roz! Now THAT’s a worthy one!

  2. So many things I love about this article Susan. I often think of my favorite quote from Wayne Dyer – which your article reminded me of again – “don’t die with your music still in you” …ah and Joseph Campbell is one of my favs too. It’s interesting how we can use different perspectives too..like #7 you mention ‘letting go of what if.’ Totally agree with what you wrote. And also, there are times I will think of the ‘what if’ as a motivator. What if I did do it? What if it was possible? What if it really did happen for me? Yes, what a nice article Susan and I’m happy I was able to read it and be inspired by it.

    1. I love that Dyer quote too, Teresa! So often I hear him in my head . . . And I love your take on the ‘what if’ game! Now, that’s exactly how to use it!

  3. It’s so interesting that what people regret most is what they didn’t do, not some acts that they wish they could undo. I had a physical therapy session with a young man and we had plenty of time to talk and I concluded my stories by saying that I’ve had an interesting life. He said he wish he could say that. I suggested that he go for it. I wonder if he will.

    1. I can’t imagine anyone spending much time around you, Beth, and NOT being motivated to go for more in his life. Bet he does!

      1. Such a nice thing to say, Susan. It was a phone call because we don’t live close. I hope so because he had spent too much time being hurt.

        1. I’d be willing to bet good money, Beth, what you said was what he needed to hear. It’s funny–so often we don’t know if we made a difference or not. And then find out sometime down the road that a seed we planted bore beautiful fruit. He’s lucky to have you!

  4. I loved reading this. Dealing with regrets is something my husband and I talk about often.

    1. Thanks, Cyndi! And how great that you and your husband talk about this!

  5. I am also a risk averse. As I get older, I am more of a risk taker than I was as a teenager. I see one of my kids being more risk averse too and am trying to get them to take risks. It’s a process. Thanks for sharing this reminder.

    1. I’m pretty risk averse to, Sabrina, although looking at my life, people often hoot at that. But I’d rather stay safe, you know? It’s just that the magic doesn’t live there . . .

  6. When I wrote my piece about not being a cat person, (until I had an experience of them), I also used Bronnie Wares discovery of people’s top five regrets. I realized so often we form opinions about things we have had no experience of ourselves, yet we formulate one based on someone else’s thoughts or experiences.

    Having had so many years of health challenges, I often “wonder” what my life would have been like if I hadn’t of had them. I don’t think of them now as regrets, just curiosity. Through my biography training I have come to understand that we do have a destiny path in our lives, and at the heart of this is what Joseph Campbell shared of Nietzsche’s work, “There is an important idea in Nietzsche, of Amor fati, the ‘love of your fate,’ which is in fact your life. As he says, if you say no to a single factor in your life, you have unraveled the whole thing.” We do have free will and that is where choice comes in. To regret your life, is to regret your destiny. I’ve often questioned this in my own life and I believe it is healthier to choose what your life is and then act from that place of acceptance. A very interesting topic to contemplate, Susan, as once we become aware of any pattern that is holding us back from living life to the fullest, we can re-create our lives as we would like them to be. Enjoyed the post and all the “questions” it brought up for me again.

    1. It’s just human nature to form opinions, isn’t it? Especially it seems about others’ experiences! Of course, entire religions have been built upon that 🙂
      But you know, it seems as though you’ve learned such an enormous amount going through your illness. And though I wouldn’t ever ever ever wish it on you, I’ve been the indirect beneficiary, learning from your knowledge and spiritual beauty. You’re always such a an inspiration, Beverley!

  7. Hi Susan,

    Excellent post! Loved the awesome tips to dealing with recret. The most important one that stood out for me was NEVER EVER GIVE UP ON YOURSELF 🙂 I really enjoyed reading, thank you for sharing such valuable insights!

    1. Thank you, Joan! And I need that reminder sometimes as well–to never ever ever give up on myself!

  8. Thank for this guidance Susan. So many people allow regrets to paralyze their present. It is time to accept what is instead of what could have been and begin to constructively deal with regret.

    1. And isn’t that the key, Rachel! What is is just, well, what is. And isn’t that freeing in the end to admit?

  9. Second try: Thank for this guidance Susan. So many people allow regrets to paralyze their present. It is time to accept what is instead of what could have been and begin to constructively deal with regret.

  10. I think so many people spend their lives trying to please others just to get their approval. I was never one to do so even from a young age. That could be the reason why I only had a few friends in high school and was teased by many others. In the end it is better to have only a few friends if it means you can be yourself and be happy with who you are.

    1. Ah, I love that, Bismah. Your real friends–the ones around whom you can just be you–are worth their weight in gold!

  11. Susan, each post I read is more amazing than the last! I definitely need to work on regret number three. I’m a work in progress! I’m working through number five’s step of banishing regret. I’ve always wanted to write and every day I wake and face the day choosing to be happy with my writing and stepping out of my comfort zone! Thank you, Susan, for your endlessly positive and supportive posts. I look forward to Monday and Wednesday like I never have before!

    1. I love that, Sheila! “Every day I wake and face the day choosing to be happy with my writing and stepping out of my comfort zone!” Now, THAT’s a recipe for success! You go, girl!

  12. I think the idea that there are going to be regrets is a fact of life. My husband and I were recently at an open-house birthday party for a friend. Over 300 people showed up. My husband seemed kind of remorseful and said, “I don’t think I have 30 friends who’d show up at my party,” and we discussed why that might be (& why it might be a good thing!) He figured there’d be kids, grandkids, and a handful of friends and acquaintances eating cake with him. The funny thing is, the next day the friend who’d actually had the party confided in me that she wished she’d previously married and had a family – that she felt kind of alone in the midst of the crowd at her party! It seems we just have to try to play the cards we’ve been given the best we can – & yes, that probably means getting out of our comfort zone from time to time.

    1. What a great example of how comparing our lives tends to leave us in wanting, Joan. We never know what others feel about their lives (unless, like your friend, they tell us!). And yes, that takes us back to playing the cards we are dealt, and finding happiness within. Thanks for that anecdote to remind us!

  13. I can confidently say that… I really don’t regret ANYTHING in my life at all. I don’t live in the past so I don’t stew over past decisions, ever. It is what it is and I live by the motto: EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON.

    1. Love that motto, Gigi! And doesn’t that just help you to go forward!

  14. The first and fifth regrets ring true to me. I have recently listened to God’s direction more than what I’ve done the past twenty years … doing what I thought others expected of me. I’m happier because of the recent change. I could also stand to be less offended therefore happier.

    1. Isn’t Divine guidance so much more effective than doing what others expect you to, Tami! Life just expands then. Good for you!

  15. We each have our different way of approaching regret. Life is such that there is always something we can regret not doing. I never want to regret living a happy life, and those are the changes I’m making in my life now. Thanks for sharing the different perspectives and the comments your post has generated are very touching.

    1. I’m with you, Joyce–I never want to regret living a happy life. This life is such a gift, and cherishing it sure mitigates any of those pesky regrets.

  16. Hi Susan! What a GREAT post! Lots of good information that I attempt to include in my life as much as possible. I also do everything I can NOT to regret the experiences and choices in my life and for the most part I’m pretty good at it. With those I’m not I “let go” of them. You’ve quoted so many people who are my heroes that i could probably go on and on about each point you’ve made but mostly I just want you to know that I enjoyed the post and will carry those ideas with me today. ~Kathy

    1. Thank you, Kathy! And I know we read the same folks 🙂 Love that connection!

  17. Excellent piece. Sometimes people get bogged down in regrets over something they said or did (or didn’t say or do, as you point out) to someone who has since passed away. And they let it eat at them. One way to handle that is to have a ceremony during which you say out loud that you regret XXX and ask for forgiveness. And then forgive yourself.

  18. I don’t think I have too many regrets, as they are what make me today. I do have a lot of wishes.. for myself now and how I want to be bigger and better. Tho I do often wonder what life would be like if.. however, knowing one change would change me.. and I don’t know if I’d want that.. even if it means to kill some of the pain in the past. Great tips

    1. That’s the essence of what Nietzsche and Campbell were saying, Kristen–you distilled it down to the core of modern life! One change would unravel the whole thing 🙂

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