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Is regret a good thing or a bad thing?

Jan 27, 2015

“The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized in the brief lifetime of that opportunity.”

What is your biggest regret? If your name is Jimmy Fallon, then your recent interview with Nicole Kidman may have changed your answer. (If you missed this interview, it’s hilarious and well worth 9 minutes. But back to the blog…)

When I think about regret, I think about one night during my senior year of high school. That fall, I remember asking a girl I had a crush on – who I felt was out of my league – to a major dance. To my surprise, she said yes! We double dated with another couple that night. Ironically, both girls had the same first names. We were on our way to dinner (first stop of the night) when I realized I really liked the other girl a lot more and should’ve asked her to be my date instead. When my date ditched me later that night to go hang out with her ex-boyfriend, I had some serious regret. (Gratefully, as a married man, I no longer have to ask girls to dances.)

 

Defining Regret

What is regret? According to Psychology Today, “regret is a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.”

As we battle our fears and seek to become courageous people, we invariably make mistakes. We make the wrong decisions. We misunderstand moments, sometimes with serious consequences. As we deal with the aftermath of these disappointments, regret can erode our efforts at becoming the people we were created to be.

When reading the piece in Psychology Today I referenced above, I was intrigued to read regret described as a “negative cognitive/emotional state.” While regret is a fairly universal experience, I hadn’t categorized it as exclusively negative. I wanted to learn more.

If you’re like me, you know regret does not change the past, but you regularly embrace it in the present.

 

4 Lessons About Regret

So, what do we do? Does living with regret make our lives better? I have learned four things that can help us better understand regret and make the most of our opportunities today.

 

1. We regret the things we didn’t do far more than the stupid things we did do.

Two sociology professors at Cornell did some research within the last decade regarding regrets. Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec discovered that in the short-term, we regret actions more than inactions (missed opportunities) – 53% to 47%. Over time, however, those numbers shift dramatically as inactions outnumber actions – 84% to 16%. In the short term, we tend to regret the stupid stuff, the sins of commissions. (i.e. “I wish I hadn’t done that. What was I thinking?!”) In the long term, we regret not doing the gutsy stuff, the sins of omission. (“I had an opportunity and I blew it”.) Over time, we tend to regret our missed opportunities more than our bad decisions.

If this research is accurate, we should focus on embracing opportunities in our near future, not living frightened at making a mistake or misstep along the way. Fear shouldn’t stop us from making a courageous choice because we can know we will regret our mistakes less than we will shrinking back from the opportunity.

One of the reasons I cite this research is that I believe it verifies something we already knew to be true. Think about the time you’ve spent with a grandparent or older person you were close to or loved. Consider the stories they shared which you loved to hear. Your favorite stories were often of mistakes they made, dumb things they did, or ridiculous situations they found themselves in. These stories were not places of deep angst for them. The things that made your loved one look off in the distance wistfully – those were the memories of moments that slipped through their fingers.

 

2. Our regrets often center around mis-valuing things in our lives.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent the majority of her career in hospice care. She wrote a book based on what she learned in conversations with the patients in her care. The book entitled, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, outlines these five regrets. They are…

I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

If I had to summarize these five things, I would say they center on “mis-valuing what’s truly important.” Work? Not so important. Other people’s opinions of me? Not so important. Relationships? Super important. Living the life I was created to live? Very important.

In the moment, we make the insignificant important and the important insignificant. For these people who Ware served, they no longer had the opportunity to do any different. You can almost hear the pain in those five statements.

If regret is our teacher, we must make sure what we’re elevating in value is actually worthy of that value. Life does not add price tags to every facet of our existence. We have to determine the value ourselves.

3. Regret’s value tends to be more positive as we have the opportunity to correct, refocus, or pursue a new path.

In the same article where I discovered the definition mentioned above, Dr. Melanie Greeberg wrote, “regret tends to be dangerous mentally and physically when we have little opportunity to change the situation.” When we have a second-chance to get something right, regret can catapult us towards success. However, when the opportunity is gone and we cannot “fix” our mistakes, regret can send us down a dark spiral.

As a pastor, writing about regret, I’m reminded of a verse from Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul wrote,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

When our hearts are broken by the consequences of our actions, we repent. The original meaning of the word “repent” was “to turn around and go in a different direction.” When repentance can rescue us from a destructive path, turning us around towards a more hopeful and healthy pursuit, we experience the positive value of regret.

4. Regret reminds us that opportunities are limited commodities.

I’ve listened to hundreds, maybe thousands of sermons in my life. Sadly, I’ve forgotten the content of many of them. A few statements are lodged in my heart, which I can recall from memory. One such statement was made by Pete Wilson in a New Year’s message. “The opportunity of a lifetime has to be seized in the lifetime of that opportunity.”

Opportunities do not come marked with an expiration date, but they all have one. Whether it is a submission or registration deadline or whether we must provide an answer within minutes, opportunities often bring an urgency with them. Several years ago, when I waited 45 minutes to call a friend back who had a U2 ticket for me, I was too late! The ticket had already been given away to someone else.

In high school, I qualified for a $76,000 scholarship at my dream school. Several weeks later, I received a letter from that school stating that I was not a finalist for the award. When I inquired further, I discovered a teacher had mailed their letter of recommendation the day after it was due. I attended college somewhere else as a result.

 

Don’t Let Fear Push You Into Regret

The opportunity of a lifetime will look different for you than it will for me or someone else reading this post. While our opportunities are unique, the quality they share in common is the limited window they inhabit. Once they are gone, we often use phrases like “I wish I had followed my dream. I should have done what I really wanted to do. How could I have used my gifts better? What would have happened if I wasn’t afraid?”

Regret can send us towards positive change or destructive rumination. We can learn from our experiences as we seize the opportunities in front of us. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; be afraid of missing a chance to do what you were created to do.

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