Regret is a big topic in therapy. People talk with anger and sadness about the choices they’ve made. They mourn and criticize themselves, speaking with disappointment about how their “bad” decisions ruined their lives. They beat themselves up, with no mercy, for decisions that didn’t deliver the results they wanted.
Many people have a perception that life is like a maze, a preexisting puzzle that exists somewhere outside themselves. Certain turns (or choices) will lead them to happiness and other turns will take them to a blocked path—or worse, into the river of despair. A good life awaits, and they will get to have it if and only if they make all the right choices along the path. But if they make certain wrong choices, or if the cards they’re dealt are of a certain nature, they will miss out on what could have been theirs because it was available for the taking.
Many people imagine that there is a right and wrong choice to be made in every situation, and that right and wrong are determined by the outcome that follows. Like a game show, door No. 1 is right and will deliver the trip to Hawaii. Door No. 2 will open up to reveal the $1.99 hand fan.
This attitude toward our choices, and the version of life it suggests, is hogwash.
For every choice we make, we use the experience, information, and intentions available to us in that particular moment. We make the decision in an attempt to achieve the goal we desire with the resources we possess at that moment. Life then unfurls in the way that it does; it becomes what it is in part as a result of our choice—and in part as a result of the mystery that life manifests, the mystery that at times seems bigger than all our choices.
The truth is, there’s no reality existing somewhere else that says, “Darn, you’re not going to get to join us over here in the happy life, where you could have ended up if you had made the right choice and picked the other path.” That other imagined happy life is—and has always been—just a thought. That particular reality that would have come, had we made the other choice, never was and never will be a reality.
We want to divide who we are, the choices we make, and the life that follows into three different things, but they are actually just one seamless, inseparable reality.
With every choice we make, we change, we become someone different. Who we are is the distillation of all our experiences. Each decision we make presents us with different challenges and gifts. Sometimes the challenges are greater than what we perceive as gifts, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Whoever we become as a result of those challenges and gifts is the right person to become, who we’re supposed to become, and the only person we could ever become—because that’s the only reality that is.
While it may seem like we could have chosen something other than what we chose, this is an utterly false belief. This idea creates tremendous suffering. The only choice we could have made was the one we made, precisely because it’s the one we did make. There is no potential to revisit that decision. To suggest that we could have chosen a different path is to imagine that we could have been someone different than who we were in that moment. But that isn’t reality. And arguing with reality is the ultimate act of futility.
When a choice we make ends up leading to an undesirable situation, it’s a right choice that brought disappointment or suffering. While it may not have created what we wanted, it’s presenting us with the lessons to be learned at this moment, and the opportunity to grow into who we are to become now. It’s the experience that is our one and only possible life right now.
There is a certain freedom from regret and rumination that comes with that choice to accept those decisions as correct and inevitable. It allows us to surrender a battle that can never be won, a battle against our own history that is waged against our present peace of mind. It’s a battle that can cripple our ability to move forward in our life.
Instead of focusing your attention on the choices you should have made or who you should have been when you were making those choices, turn your attention to what’s here now to be learned and to experience.
Realize your wisdom as the union of everything you’ve lived so far, “good” or “bad.” Instead of lamenting the life you could have been living, had you made different choices, dive into the life you’re actually in. Notice what you’re grateful for and what you want to change.
Instead of using your energy to torture yourself, to inflict self-hatred for the decisions you made when you should have chosen otherwise, forgive yourself for being who you were at that time. Remind yourself that regardless of how it played out with all the other uncontrollable components of life, your intentions were to bring yourself happiness. Stay on your own side.
And, most of all, rather than beating yourself up for the choices you made, offer yourself compassion for the disappointment, suffering, or whatever else came with the way life chose to flow.
There’s only one thing we can know for sure and that is that whatever situation we’re in now, it will change. It will change in part through our choices and in part through life’s eternal changing nature.
Rather than squandering your attention on old choices made, moments that are gone, turn your most powerful gift, your attention, to what’s here now. Bring the best of you, your wisdom, and your full presence to the next choice that presents itself, with a sincere intention to do the best you can with who you are right now. This is life’s profound opportunity, the moment-by-moment chance we have to reflect, grow, and choose.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com