They say as you get older you don’t regret what you’ve done, but those things you didn’t do. I agree with this. I for one have managed to let go of major regrets regarding my actions. Even my most horrendous blunders didn’t come close to destroying me—or anyone else. What I regret are the things I didn’t think about.
If I could go back to my first decade as an adult—the twenties—I’d change my outlook, the way I thought about life. I feel that if I had a different mindset then, I could have saved myself from many internal hardships and maybe I’d be better off right now.
“Regretting is the act of revisiting past decisions or events, comparing them to what might have been and wishing they had been different,” writes Hamilton Beazley, Ph.D. in the book No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind. “When we give those past decisions or events the power to hurt us in the present, we have created burdensome regrets that corrode our lives.”
A few of Dr. Beazley’s ten steps to releasing regrets include listing regrets, examining regrets, changing toxic thought patterns, grieving losses and making amends.
Because of my past as a straight “A” student in high school, when I graduated from college with a less than stellar GPA and went to work, I was under the false impression that if you weren’t good at something on your first try that meant you weren’t good at all. The thought never occurred to me that you still could be good one day if you put in the time. I was a hard worker, but believed more in natural talents, and gifts. I was prone to become despondent when frustrated. And I was repeatedly frustrated as I learned new things. I quit five or six promising jobs within the span of a few years.
I regret that when I was 24 or 25 or 26, I did not walk into work everyday saying to myself: “Although it may not seem like it or feel like it, I know more today than I did yesterday. And tomorrow I’ll learn more and eventually if I stick with it, I’ll master this job and all the things this position entails including increasing my technical knowledge, stress management, interpersonal skills and resilience.”
I wanted to know everything instantly and did not respect the idea of the learning curve. I said I enjoyed challenges, but in truth if there was no paradigm, like say a book report or a test, I felt lost. Without the framework of classes and grades, I didn’t have clear goals of what I was working toward or for. Because no one yelled at me or praised me I was never sure of exactly how I was doing. I didn’t know how to bounce back after a bad day or setback. I sweated the small stuff—all of it.
And irony of all ironies, despite my bookish past, I didn’t realize that reading specific self-help books could actually help me deal with my chronic dissatisfactions.
In retrospect, I could have named each of my problems, borrowed or purchased corresponding self-help books, studied them thoroughly and created action plans. I did not do this because I didn’t have a teacher, professor, supervisor or mentor telling me to. Instead I muddled through life constantly fighting off feelings of failure.
So basically I regret what I did not know and did not try to know. To this day I can’t honestly say that I’m completely healed in this area. I’m still on the journey.
According to Dr. Beazley, regrets are an inevitable part of living, and we gain something by learning to let them go. One reward is the recognition of lessons and gifts that have come from our regrets. “You can use them for your own benefit and the benefit of other people.”
A few months ago on Oprah, a number of celebrities were asked if they could go back in time, what piece of advice they would give to their younger selves. I would say this: “Leah, be patient, you’ve only just begun.”
Now as I approach 40 or what Gail Sheehy called “the deadline decade,” I frequently say to myself and everyone who reads my articles: “We get better and better with age. We get better and better with age. We get better and better with age…”