Does regret deserve another chance?

What is it about regret?
Regret has quite the reputation. Dictionaries shove regret in with remorse, apology and disappointment. For years I accepted this connotation and have been regret avoidant, determined to live without regrets. Lately, I reconsidered my regret aversion.

How many flavours does regret come in?
duhEven when I meant no harm I’ve said stupid and done dumb. I didn’t always realize it right away. It sometimes took me years to understand – slap forehead with palm. And then I’d regret the stupid and dumb stuff and vow to be better.

How did regret get marinated in one negative sauce when regret grows in varied soil? In regret’s favour, it motivates reassessment, curiosity and determination.

At least two types of regrets are teachers.

The ‘what if’ regret poses questions without answers
What if X had happened instead of Y? What if I’d stayed at my great, secure job with opportunities for promotion instead of risking a career change? It sure makes me aware of my privilege in having life choices.‘What if’ regret is often imposed without choice. Helen, the protagonist in Sliding Doors lived two time lines. In the original the train door shut in her face. She got the next train home and her life unfolded. Then, the scene replayed. Helen yanked open the train door, got home to find her partner’s infidelity and her life shattered. Her two parallel lives continued their different trajectories until her futures converged.

Would I wind up in the same place whatever I decide?
It’s comforting to believe such convergence happens. Convergence isn’t my experience. My present life depended on specific decisions. At each ‘what if’ bifurcation point my decision meant irrevocable life changes.

That’s the blessing buried in the ‘what if’ regret. No matter which path to where I end, I’d like to believe I’d have adapted.

‘How could’ regret looks inward to prevent repeating mistakes
How could I have been so [fill in the blank]. Helen #2, who caught the train, couldn’t believe she’d been so [stupid, blind, in love, misled – pick a failing] to miss the signs her partner was unfaithful. Helen #2 adapted to her changed circumstances. Helen #1, who missed the train, didn’t change anything and her infantile cheating partner held her back.

The blessing in the ‘how could’ lesson is the growth opportunity.

Do regrets deserve rehabilitation?
Although I began on a challenging quest to live without regret, I now ‘regret’ that.

photo from CD available on

photo from CD available on

What would it be like to live without regrets? Well, I’d lose valuable lessons. Making mistakes, hurting others, and disappointing myself is inevitable. Regret is born in understanding rather than being oblivious. So, like the lovely Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.

Regret offers the chance to fix hurt feelings or mistakes
My late mother and I regretted our relationship wasn’t closer. A lot of issues we worked out. In the seven years since she died our relationship keeps improving. She’s been my silent partner, and I’ve written some of our conflicts out of existence in my (still) unpublished novel.

My conclusion: it’s never  too late to fix a relationship or hurt feeling. The other person will deal with his or her stuff, and if there’s anything I regret, it motivates me to work on mine.

What regrets are you holding on to that could be turned into teachers?


Passing the Regret Test

Hallelujah. I graduated from the Breast Cancer doctor. Hugs, dancing in reception and NO next appointment. Bring on the morass of disability insurance forms. Do I regret my failed attempt to return to work? No, I love my job as a conflict manager and wanted to be there, though every day was a struggle and every walk home was tearful. If I hadn’t tried, I’d have wondered if I could, and I’d like to live life without such regrets.


Omar Khayyám wrote in the Rubaiyat attributed to him: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line; nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’

Sometimes it felt like the moving finger was a steamroller. There probably isn’t a mistake I haven’t made and tried to rationalize as the only thing I could’ve done under the circumstances (yikes, I fit in Self-Serving Bias). I thought to reach out to someone, speak a kind word, apologize, express love, and then didn’t do it, or didn’t do it well. I figure the moving finger ought to be more pious and witty in the first place. Then maybe I wouldn’t regret what I did or didn’t do.


And for those times I’m at a bifurcation point, where once the decision is made it can’t be reversed, I’ve created a Regret Test, when there’s no eraser or do over. The decision becomes a ‘frozen accident’ (Dr. Murray Gell-Mann’s phrase). We should all be fortunate enough have such decisions that change the course of our own and others’ lives: the freedom to decide who to love, where to get an education, whether to take a gap year traveling or go straight into a job. Those decisions set a course where people meet who would never otherwise have met, live places never otherwise visited, and experience life in transformational ways. I’m always aware that it’s freedom and good fortune that allow these bifurcation points.

To take the Regret Test, I find a quiet comfortable mood. I imagine my deathbed at 120-years-old, my few remaining friends and family around me. With my last strength, I say: ‘I’ve had a good life, doing everything I wanted to do. The only regret I have is … ‘ Then I fill in the decision I’m trying to make. If it feels like I’ll regret doing or not doing it, that makes my decision clearer. It’s my form of penny spinning that the wonderful poet scientist Piet Hein grooked about.

A Psychological Tip

Piet Hein

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,

and you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No – not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Living without regret should be easier than it is. All the mistakes and learning are the legacy to me from that person I was and will be. The moving finger doesn’t leave behind a band-aid so my conflict competence first aid kit contains a penny and a Regret Test.