Have you ever made a decision you regret? Choices you wish you never made? Or wished the circumstances surrounding you had been different?
This happens a lot, to many of us. But regret is a terrible emotion that will leave a sour taste in your mouth. You don’t want the helplessness that comes with it, the self-admonishments and anger with yourself. Many of us do this. We replay a chapter of our lives over and over again, trying to imagine how things would have gone, if we hadn’t made that decision. It’s asking yourself repeatedly what would have happened had you made different choices. You beat yourself up about it repeatedly until your own thoughts tumble you into a dark space that is difficult to escape.
There’s a way to cope though, a way to avoid going down the “what if” route. It involves a lot of learning, introspection and self-honesty. It’s a way to save your sanity from the unforgiving stare of regret, that will ensnare you until your eyes bleed out.
First things first…
1. Forgive yourself
Learn to forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for the ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ decisions you wish you hadn’t made. Forgive yourself for the choices you picked when you were none the wiser. It made perfect sense to you in the moment you made it. Maybe had you had the knowledge you have now, you may have made different choices, but you didn’t, cut yourself some slack. Perhaps you were advised by older and wiser people, but decided you were smarter and chose not to listen. We all have foolish moments, forgive yourself for yours and learn from them.
In retrospect a lot of things appear crystal clear, but hindsight comes after the deed, not before. Use it to learn from your past behaviour, and be kind enough to yourself to let it go. Holding a grudge against yourself will only give regret a tighter hold on your throat. The process of forgiving a deed with massive consequences takes time, even when only one party is involved, remember that.
2. Be comfortable with the choices you made
This obviously can’t happen if you haven’t forgiven yourself. There’s simply no way to accept the decisions you made if you’re still second guessing yourself. You can’t go back in time. You can’t change it, neither can you whisper your new found knowledge to the younger you. You can only deal with the situation in the present moment, and the way you do that determines what your future moments will be hold for you.
Remember you had a decision criterion when you made your choices (whether it’s a functional criterion or not is besides the point), and probably that has changed too, but that’s okay, deal with the consequences of using that criterion. Being at peace with where you are now, will allow you to chart a way forward, without regret tainting your view. If you’re not, it’s like trying to drive your car with the windscreen coated in mud from yesterday’s trip. You won’t get very far without crashing. Learn to be comfortable with the decisions you made in the past, before attempting to move forward.
3. Master the art of self-honesty
Have you ever heard of delusions of grandeur? Without diving into the specifics of Psychology, it’s the false belief in one’s own superiority, greatness, or intelligence. It’s believing you’re a genius, or where born to be a leader, for example, when there’s zero evidence to support this belief. And grandiose delusions aren’t momentary fantasies or hopes, they’re persistent.
A lot of people have these. You probably know someone with these, or heard of them. Or maybe you have them, but just like an alcoholic you’d be the last person to acknowledge it. It’s a sign of a mental disorder, but mostly when it reaches the higher levels on a scale. However I’m not here to take you into the fascinating world of Psychology, but to warn you against things like this.
You need to be honest enough with yourself to realize when you made a mistake, or misjudgment and take responsibility for it. I can’t stress this enough. When you find yourself blaming everyone and anything but yourself for half the things happening in your life, you’re going to continue making crappy decisions again and again. You simply can’t learn if you don’t identify the error and analyze how and why you made it. If you find yourself always believing you know better than everyone else in the room, you’re a fool. It’s an indication that you can’t take advice from anyone else, most importantly people who do know better, because you’re too wrapped up in your own “superior opinions.”
4. Learn from other people’s mistakes
Finally, before we move on to charting a way forward, adopt the skill of learning from other people’s mistakes and experiences. People are almost always eager to share the times they had it good, or saw an amazing opportunity and how they messed up. Listen. Listen to other people’s experiences, their stories, and learn. At times we get so wrapped up in our own worlds, we’re not willing to have real conversations with people, especially strangers. Pay attention to the actions of others (more than the words), and take note of where they err, and what they’re doing right.
Learning from your mistakes makes you smart
Learning from other people’s mistakes makes you a genius
Don’t just rely on your own experiences to learn, take note of other people’s regrettable actions as well.
Charting a way forward
Now that we’ve established what needs to happen first, let’s move on to figuring out how to make better decisions. Some things are irreversible, you know this, but there are always things you can change. There are circumstances and situations you can take control of, including consequences of your earlier poor choices. To do this though, we need to get to the root of the problem, which is how we make decisions.
When it comes to dealing with regret, you have multiple choices, and one of those includes doing nothing about it, and wallowing in self-pity. If you’d prefer to enjoy what is left of your time alive however, I wouldn’t recommmend this route.
Alternatively, there’s living with your choices, and learning to love what is there; secondly, you could salvage what is left and try to find your way back to the path you originally wanted; and/or lastly, you could set new sights for yourself and start afresh. None of these are mutually exclusive, and neither are they fool-proof. You could do all three, or one, or any of the two. It just depends on where you’re standing and what you’re trying to achieve. If your decision making model is still the same as in the past though, you’re headed towards repetition of history.
Evaluate how you make decisions
This is crucial. If you’re making decisions the same way you did when you made the ones you regret, then you’re going to have some problems. You’ll keep making similar decisions because of the way you select your choices.
Strong emotions are not your friend
A lot of decisions we make are severely coloured by emotion, but that’s not the ugly part, we’re all emotional beings. The mistake we make is not realizing that the decisions we’re making are driven by emotion and failing to identify that emotion. When you know you’re angry, and that you’re making that choice out of anger, you will know you are making a mistake. But if you never think about it, you’ll feel rightly justified in the moment.
Do not make decisions under the influence of strong emotions.
Let me repeat that for emphasis, do not make make decisions under the influence of strong emotions. I can almost guarantee you that you are going to regret it, it’s a given. Strong emotions warp our judgement. I’m not referring to just negative emotions, the good ones too! Excitement, momentary joy, optimism, confidence, even those moments when you feel extremely generous and forgiving. The key word here is strong. When you’re too hopeful, you’re unlikely to think of the worst case scenario and what you would do in the event that it happens. Here’s a classic example, over-confident people are known for making poor choices, they can’t see what everyone else can see.
Take time to let your emotions ebb, and normalize, you’ll think more clearly afterwards. Sometimes taking a couple of days, or sleeping over it, will assist you. If it’s a situation that continually makes you feel this way, this where your trusted supported system comes in. Let them help you make the decision. If you’re feeling apathetic about your own life, i.e you don’t care about anything, you need to seek professional help. That’s a very dangerous emotion you can’t take lightly, and it’s a major symptom of depression. Get help.
Think about how you made decisions in the past
Really think about this. Allow your mind to honestly reveal your thought processes at the time, and the circumstances surrounding you. If you can’t be honest with yourself, ask someone who’s bluntly honest to tell you what they witnessed you do. You can’t get angry though, they won’t be honest with you again next time. If you can pinpoint what you did wrong, then you will know which method won’t work. Try a new one. Better yet, ask people who seem to always have it together how they make their decisions, you could learn a thing or two. Pride won’t get you anywhere. Be willing to learn from anyone, even from younger or less economically wealthy people.
Make deliberate choices
This is such a common problem it’s astounding. I see people making choices without even thinking. See, there’s a difference between automated decisions guided by defined personal principles, and thoughtless little choices we make on a daily basis. You may have gotten the impression that I was only talk about the big decisions only, like the career you chose for yourself, but I mean the much smaller ones too.
The tiny ones matter too. The choice to eat fast food and have a soft drink for lunch today, and tomorrow, and everyday of the week, will have powerful consequences 15-20 years from now. You’ll regret it then, but the damage will be done. The choice not to do small acts of kindness, like saying thank you, to your partner will have consequences later. The love will die. Know what you want. Know what kind of person you want to be 1,5,10 years from now. Know where you want to go. That alone will make the majority of all your decisions for you, big or small.
Remember you’re still going to make mistakes, but forgive yourself. Be honest with yourself, continue learning and be comfortable with your choices. Understand that as you repeat this process over and over again, you’ll start making fewer and fewer bad decisions. You’ll get to a point where you’re making far more good decisions that bad ones. We’re aiming for a simple majority here. If you get 51% right, you’re winning.
(If you found this post useful, please share with people you think may want to read this too. Feel free to leave a comment, or suggestion below, I’d be happy to respond.)