A fun little game to stir up regrets is to ask yourself what you would change from your past if you had a time machine. Would you take an opportunity that you missed? Would you refrain from doing something that had negative consequences? Would you face a fear? This exercise can highlight events in our past that, through hindsight, seem to be a detriment to our present life as we experience it. Regrets can uncomfortable, and at times downright painful. The major flaw of this game is that it devalues regrets, makes us wish for an impossible alternate reality, and often increases shame and helplessness.
And just to be clear, all regrets are not equal. There are experiences from our past that have traumatized us and had irreversible consequences, some due to our decisions, many completely outside of our control. If looking for value in these experiences is too painful, then this exercise might not be appropriate for those regrets.
The regrets in our lives that have the most value are those experiences that stick out in our memories and motivate us to respond differently in the present moment. These uncomfortable reminders become motivators to strive for something better, to confront fears, and to live by our values.
Some common stories that I’ve heard include:
- Ignoring a lonely peer at a school dance becomes a motivator to be more sensitive to those who feel marginalized and making the extra effort to befriend those who seem isolated.
- Bullying a fellow classmate in school becomes a motivator to be an advocate for those who are mistreated.
- Regretting not telling a family member more often that you loved them prior to their passing becomes a motivator to make sure that you tell your family and friends just how much you love them on a regular basis.
- Betraying someone’s confidence becomes a motivator to be a loyal friend, seek the whole story, and not jump to conclusions.
- Prioritizing your own agenda or desires over the needs of others becomes a motivator to reprioritize your relationships and to address unhealthy behaviors.
Regrets, like many things in life, can be very useful in moderation. When you notice yourself fantasizing wistfully about past events, try to see the value in such experiences. Use those uncomfortable or painful regrets to motivate yourself to identify and live out your most important values in life. Regrets by nature are uncomfortable, but they do not have to be a waste of your memory.
Shawn Healy, PhD