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Life without regrets?

Dear Alice,

Do you believe in going from one relationship that did not work to another, without regrets? How come some people can change their lives without looking back? Is it possible to grow old without regrets?

J

Dear J, 

For many, to regret is to feel badly about a past event: a decision made in haste, an opportunity not pursued, words spoken or not spoken, the course and outcome of a relationship. For some, regret comes about when it seems that if a different path had been taken, it might have spared you, or someone else, unnecessary pain. At the end of the day, if you imagine that your current situation could have been better if you had made different decisions, regrets may start to come up. This feeling is often accompanied by sadness, loss, or guilt about a wrong. In contrast, regret can be replaced by more positive emotions and actions, such as reflection and an opportunity if you reframe the way you think about the experience. Here’s an example: 

You just ended a six-month relationship because the two of you spent most of your time arguing about everything from what movie to see to what was said during your last argument. You both made an effort to coexist more peacefully, but, in the end, you just couldn't get along. After the first month, you had an idea that the two of you were like oil and water, but you stuck it out because you're not too keen on being single. 

The Regretter might think this way: “I'm sorry I ever got into that relationship in the first place . . . I wasted six months of my life on something that I knew probably wasn't going to work . . . If I had just trusted my instincts early on, I could have had five more months to find the right partner . . .” 

The Reframer might instead say: “We worked hard for six months to get along more . . . I'm far better now than I was back in May at asserting myself and compromising . . . Those first signs that the future of our relationship was bleak are reminders for me to pay more attention to my instincts the next time around." 

Notice that the Regretter's lingo is filled with "would,” “should,” and “could haves," while the Reframer focuses on the benefits of the experience while considering how to improve future bonds.  Distress can be a common reaction to a breakup and, yes, regrets can trigger some of those negative feelings. Yet, while it may seem impossible that someone could truly pop into a new relationship without considering past ones, staying aware of what's worked and what hasn't in your past may be key to improving skills and judgment in the future. Even if you don’t recognize it immediately, your past experiences often work to inform what you want (and don’t want) out of a future relationship. Moving forward in life without harboring remorse about what you’ve done or haven’t done may be a helpful strategy in setting personal goals and allowing you to understand how the situation has helped you grow. 

That being said, having “no regrets” can become a problematic philosophy when it keeps you from learning from your mistakes or when it's used to get out of taking responsibility for your actions. If you find that this is something you struggle with, you might consider talking with a mental health professional to discuss more productive coping strategies for the things you’re dwelling on. Conversations with a professional, or even trusted family or friends, may help you to process those experiences and help you reframe your thinking to consider what you've learned and how you’ve grown from the situation. 

So, is it possible to grow old without any regrets, you ask? Considering that to do so would mean never considering different outcomes or wishing you could change your past decisions, the answer is likely no. People of all ages experience regrets and continue to have them throughout their life. Young people, in particular, can become angry when they are faced with regret, and while that anger can be used to focus on future improvement, it can still be a distressing feeling. 

However, there’s good news: while younger people are often more heavily impacted by regrets and can feel as if their lives have been ruined, older people generally look back on their lives with a more positive regard. As you grow older, your expectations for yourself and your life tend to change, which as a result often leads you to feel more satisfied with the actions that you have taken up until that point. Although much of how you handle these situations is likely habitual (and perhaps based on what you’ve seen growing up), it’s possible to develop a balanced way of thinking about past life events with a little support from friends, family, or a licensed mental health professional. In this case, time really can heal!  

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Last updated Jun 09, 2023
Originally published Nov 05, 1999