How To Stop Regrets From Taking Over Your Life

Niamh Devereux doesn't believe in living life without regrets - but she does believe in learning from them.

Regrets, I’ve had a few… and I bet you have too. Sorry, but I just don’t buy the whole ‘I have zero regrets’ thing – it’s an admirable notion, but whether it’s something you did or didn’t do, everybody has at least one situation in life they wish they could redo. Even if you don’t believe in dwelling on regrets, it doesn’t stop you from being human. I’ll be totally honest; I have a list.

This ranges from the time I turned down U2 tickets on my J1, because I didn’t think I could afford it, to the night I went to an 18th birthday party, drank two bottles of wine and regurgitated them on the poor bus driver in front of my entire year, to allowing my younger years to be ruled by a lack of confidence, to not walking away from a toxic relationship when I knew it was slowly destroying me. I’m aware there is no merit in regretting them, but it doesn’t change the fact.

Writing this got me thinking about a video I saw a few years ago, one of those ‘50 people, one question’ projects. They simply asked, ‘what is your biggest life regret’ to a myriad of people strolling down the street, all ages, all backgrounds. And the answers were varied too, from a young woman in her 20s saying she wished she hadn’t kissed a life-long pal, as it ruined their friendship, to an elderly American tourist musing that he should have married his wife when they finished school rather than letting decades pass before they were reunited, to a middle-aged guy uttering the short, but loaded, reply of, ‘my drinking’.

There were people who said they had none, in that blasé ‘life’s not about regrets’ way, but the majority of those who were asked the question answered from the heart. As my own experiment, I put out a tweet asking the same question. Like that video, the replies I got were a total mixed bag. There were the light-hearted. “Not buying a pair of pink, $300 cowboy boots in Texas!” one read. Then there were the more serious ones: “Not asking for help with my mental health sooner and thinking I could sort everything out on my own.”; “I regret working so hard to the point of burnout which caused me ill heath to which I’m still not fully recovered”; “Not starting my business sooner, I stayed in jobs I hated far too long.”

One message in particular was heart-wrenching. I’ll call her Jen; she wrote to me privately about how when she was 12 years old, she visited her dying grandmother in the hospital, who looked up at her, for the last time, and smiled. “Something inside me knew this was it… that this was the last interaction I’d have with my nan,” Jen told me. “The fear  of never seeing her, of her being gone soon took over and I stepped behind my dad to hide. She died two hours later. It stayed with me for years.”

To get further insight on regrets I turned to Niamh Ennis, AKA The Change Coach. “So many clients talk to me about regrets they have, but when you drill down, they are rarely regrets, but fears,” she says. “I regret not going for that job”, “I regret settling in that relationship” – these are simply a different way of saying I was too scared to go for that job or to leave that relationship. Regret doesn’t hold you back. Fear does.

“Our past actions deeply haunt us because we want to be able to revisit the things we did that didn’t turn out perfectly and in our own way alter the outcome. Instead, we really need to focus on what we learn from each experience, what we can take from it and use that to invest in our future experiences.”

This is far easier said than done. On a practical level, how do we not allow ourselves to not get stuck in regret? Niamh says it’s all about acceptance. “I believe that the key is to first of all acknowledge your regrets, then accept they exist and finally ask yourself honestly what have you learned from this time or this situation.

“Take that and move forward with it. That way, no experience is wasted and you will continue to learn and grow. It’s a much more positive and uplifting use of your time and energy.”

This got me thinking about how I deal with my own regret. Rather than taking it, accepting it, and viewing it as a lesson, do I indulge it? Look back wistfully, thinking ‘if only, what if?’ I probably do a little. But I’m reminded of that movie The Butterfly Effect, an early noughties flick starring Ashton Kutcher that’s based on the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever. Dramatic as this may seem, it does apply to the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ situation we tend to find ourselves in.

You regret spending years with a fella who didn’t end up being ‘The One’? Well, if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have learned things about yourself that make you the person you are for your current or next relationship.

Wish that you hadn’t turned down that work opportunity? You never know – it could have been the worst career move you’d ever made, and by not taking it, you may not have the colleagues and friends you have now.

When it comes down to it, we should have faith in a good ‘ole Irish mammy mantra: what’s for you won’t pass you, and if it does, it wasn’t for you.

Turn Regret Around By Taking Action

“Apart from reaffirming how regrets are such a waste of our energies, it honestly is never too late to turn things around,” Niamh Ennis (niamhennis.com) says. Here’s how…

Career Regret

Solution: “research what career you really want, and talk to a
life coach to find your purpose. When you identify what your new preferred area is then find out what qualifications you might need and start re-training or upskilling as appropriate. begin saving by putting money aside each month so that you can have a nest egg aside for when you make the transition.

Financial Regret

Solution: “Start now. Stop looking behind you and focus on making the changes you need. get out of your usual way and deal with it.”

Comfort Zone Regret

Solution: “the answer to this lies in managing your fears – how
to recognise when something is based on fear and on the limiting beliefs and stories we tell ourselves. you can’t get pushed out of your comfort zone, you have to jump out of it!”

Romance Regret

Solution: “you can’t pine over what was, but use the experience to learn from and trust that you are now where you are supposed to be with who you are supposed to be.”

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