Regret Is Inevitable (And That's OK)

What if we regret it? Now we’re worried. Image: Thinkstock.

What if we regret it? Now we’re worried. Image: Thinkstock.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Sometimes, there is no way to avoid regret.

I had never seen my mom cry from sadness before.

I’d seen her cry with happiness at my wedding in 2011. I’d seen her eyes well at my college graduation. I’d once seen her cry in frustration after an argument with my dad.

But the tears she was shedding now, sitting across from me in our booth at Red Lobster, clutching her napkin in one fist, were of an entirely different sort.

I had insisted that we go out for lunch after our long meeting with her extended family at a local funeral home.

My grandpa, her father, had just passed away after a long illness — an illness through which my mom had cared for him.

Her face was pale and sunken. I could tell she hadn’t eaten breakfast. At the time, I was 25 — young enough that the extended family still viewed me as a kid of sorts, but old enough to feel responsible for and incredibly protective of my mother. I was determined to set my own grief aside and be strong for her.

At the funeral home meeting, I did my best to advocate for her voice to be heard amongst those of her five siblings. Things were chaotic, and I could see my mom shrinking, under the weight of it all. Watching her cry — truly cry — for the first time in my life was disconcerting. It made me feel powerless. It broke my heart.

No one ever deserves the anguish that comes with losing a close family member, least of all my mom. In spite of the fact that she lived over an hour from my grandparents’ home, she had driven to be with them every day once my grandpa’s illness worsened, sometimes staying the night at their house.

She ran errands for them, handled financial matters as their power of attorney, and took care of their medical needs. She had truly done everything she could, even up until my grandpa’s final moments in the hospital.

Yet in the midst of her tears, she suddenly murmured, “I wish I could have been a better daughter.”

I was gobsmacked. “What are you talking about?” I managed to ask.

“I wish I’d have spent more time with Dad, when I was growing up. I regret that I didn’t. I regret it so much.”

In the moment, I tried to comfort my mom, and assure her that she’d been a great daughter. I did my best to steer the conversation in a more positive direction, toward happy memories of Grandpa.

But Mom’s words stayed with me for a long time after I returned home.

I regret it so much…


What is regret, anyway?

In its simplest form, it’s a kind of wishful thinking.

If you buy a pair of shoes that later turn out to hurt your feet, you might regret buying the shoes. You might wish that you could go back in time, and stop yourself from buying them. In such a circumstance, regret is a harmless thing.

But what about more serious circumstances, like my mom’s?

What about wishing you could go back in time and do something significant, like spend more time with a loved one? That type of regret can prey upon the psyche for years because, as I began to notice more and more after our conversation, most people view regret as a sign of personal failure. As a sign that they have made some sort of error.

The more serious they believe that error to be, the more regret they feel.

It’s as if people view decisions as diverging paths, with one side leading to happiness and the other leading to regret. If you’re smart, you’ll choose the correct path. Therefore, when you end up experiencing regret, it’s evidence that you were foolish enough to choose the “wrong” path.

People map out their entire lives in an attempt to avoid regret. They overthink every decision, or avoid making as many decisions as they can. They don’t take risks.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Sometimes, there is no way to avoid regret.

The diverging paths are a lie — sometimes they both lead to happiness; other times they both lead to regret.


Could it be because the idea of choice — of the diverging paths — gives us a sense of control? And that we like that sense of control so much that we’re willing to cling to it, even when it costs us?


Such was certainly the case with my mom. There was a reason she hadn’t spent more time with my grandpa in her youth.

Though age had mellowed him into a loving grandfather, as a younger man, he’d been prone to violence. During my mom’s junior-high and high-school years, he’d shown up to every major family event drunk.

He’d knocked out one of my uncles in a fistfight. He’d thrown my aunt out of the house when she became pregnant at age 18.

When my mom was 18, she moved out herself, to stay with her sister.

I remember asking her, during my own teenage years, what had made her leave home. She’d told me, “Dad was sick, back then. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

How could she have chosen a different path? A “better” path?

She couldn’t have. And yet she still felt regret, and still interpreted that regret as a sign of failure.

During my freshman year of college, a friend informed me that she was pregnant. She was 19 at the time. She was frightened and conflicted about whether to continue her pregnancy. As we discussed her options, she told me how trapped she felt, and described the choice before her as “impossible to make.”

She told me, “I know I’ll regret getting an abortion. But I know I’ll regret having a baby.”

My friend’s dilemma was the same as my Mom’s. They both faced choices that, no matter the outcome, would lead them to regret.

In a world where regret is seen as a sign of personal failure, such choices seem impossible to make.

But what if we shifted the way we thought about regret? What if, instead of feeling guilty for experiencing it, we accepted it as an inevitability of life?

It shouldn’t be hard. Practically every other negative emotion — anger, sadness, grief — is seen as inevitable. How many times have you heard, “In life, there are ups and downs” or “Everyone in relationships gets angry, sometimes” or “Grief is natural”? Why is regret excluded?

Could it be because the idea of choice — of the diverging paths — gives us a sense of control? And that we like that sense of control so much that we’re willing to cling to it, even when it costs us?

And it does cost us. It causes us to worry, and worry is a close cousin of regret. We worry about our choices because we worry about taking the wrong path — the path that may lead to regret.

Should we buy the shoes? What if we regret it? Now we’re worried.

A 2015 study by Cornell Professor Karl Pillemer sought to find what Americans over the age of 65 regretted most when they looked back on their lives. The most common answer? “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my time worrying.”

Worrying, in an attempt to make perfect decisions that lead away from regret, ends up leading to life’s most common regret.

In other words, you can’t avoid regret. It’s inevitable, and that’s OK.

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can stop blaming ourselves for making decisions that may have been perfectly reasonable, at the time.

The sooner we can reflect on our pasts, without guilt.

The sooner we can throw away our mental maps of scary-looking diverging paths, and push ahead knowing that the regret we may feel is not a reflection on our character.

In the end, we are flawed beings, in a flawed world, navigating as best we can.

And there’s not a thing wrong with that. 

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