Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

May 29th, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Personal GrowthWhat is the worst emotion you can imagine feeling? In my work, I see people express many different emotions. Yes, some are wonderful such as joy, excitement, pride, and inspiration. But others I see, not surprisingly, are less positive including fear, frustration, anger, and sadness. Yet, the one emotion that lies along the continuum of feelings that I consider to be perhaps the worst of all emotions is regret.

What is regret? That you wish you had done something differently. The sad reality is that there are no dress rehearsals in life, there is no “Way Back” machine (can anyone give me that cultural reference?) that gives you opportunities for do-overs. You get one shot at life, so you might as well take it otherwise there will be a whole lot of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” when you look in the rearview mirror of your life.

The issue of regret has particular relevance to me personally because one of my strongest values and goals in life is to experience as little regret in my life as possible. This “take your shot” approach to life has had, admittedly, its ups and downs. For example, during my single years, I was shot down by a whole lot of women. Conversely though, the last woman I took my shot with turned out to be my wife.

Regret relates to action or inaction for me. Life presents all kinds of opportunities to us. We then have a choice whether to embrace or reject the opportunity. We can take a leap of faith and risk plummeting to our deaths (metaphorically, of course). Or we can keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and ensure our safety, while also missing out on what the opportunity had to offer.

I don’t know many people who have regrets for what they did in their lives (except perhaps really stupid things that had permanent and bad consequences), for when they acted on an opportunity, even if it didn’t work out. I do know many people who have immense regret for what they didn’t do, for when they failed to act when an opportunity arose, whether the idea not pursued, the job not taken, or the person not asked out on a date. Yet, when people live safe lives, regret is what they will surely experience.

I came across a blog recently written by a nurse who takes care of dying patients. The post described the five regrets that she heard most frequently from her patients:

1.  “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This regret is perhaps the most elemental because it lies at the heart of leading a rich life. So much of the lack of meaning, satisfaction, and happiness that people experience can be boiled down to the fact that they are not living a life that is consistent with their true selves, values, and goals. This incongruence creates a tension that can only lead to an unfulfilled life. By eschewing regret, we have to jettison the expectations of others and create a life that is authentic and rewarding.

2.  ”I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

I actually have mixed feelings about this regret. I think that if you experience regret #1 and you are in a career that isn’t aligned with who you are, then, yes, you will feel great regret for having spent time working when you could have been devoting your time to activities and people that you value.

At the same time, if your career is one, like mine, that you have great passion for, it is a source of satisfaction and pride, and you feel productive, valued, and connected, then this regret may not be relevant to you. As with most things in life, it’s probably best to strive for a balanced life that includes engaging work, interesting avocations, and nurturing relationships.

3.  ”I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

Living a life full of regret expresses itself powerfully in our emotional lives that are dominated by the unhealthy emotions that I described above, for example, fear, frustration, and anger. Unfortunately, our culture and many families don’t encourage a healthy emotional life in which we have the opportunity to truly understand our emotions and their causes, are allowed to embrace the spectrum of emotions, and can freely convey what we feel, whether positive or negative. Yet, only by experiencing the complete range of emotions can we experience the full depth and breadth that life has to offer. A life that aims to experience no regret inspires us to be thoroughly in touch with all of our emotions, whether hurt and loneliness or love and excitement, and frees us to have the courage to express those emotions in ways that are genuine and that enrich our lives.

4.  ”I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Is there anything more important to a happy and healthy life than meaningful relationships? According to the research, the answer is no; relationships are the single best predictor of happiness. Yet, a risk-free life makes fulfilling relationships a near impossibility because relationships are, by their very nature, risky and fraught with regret. Also, our mobile, fast-paced, and technologically connected culture often doesn’t leave time for relationships to grow and flourish. Rejecting regret frees us from these inhibitions and allows us to pursue and continue relationships with gusto.

5.  ”I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Happiness, of course, is the bottom line. What’s the point of life if it can’t be filled with joy, contentment, excitement, and everything else that accompanies happiness. Yet, when we live a safe life, it individually and cumulatively ensures that we won’t find happiness because everything related to that secure life isn’t remotely associated with happiness. When we take the risks necessary to avoid regret, we clear the path to happiness.

I think we should embrace every opportunity we come upon. Of course, many of those opportunities will lead to dead ends and, in some cases, heartbreak. We will naturally feel disappoint that they didn’t turn out the way we wanted. But that feeling of disappointment will be mild and short lived compared to the feeling of regret we would feel if we didn’t take the shot. At the same time, along with that sadness at the failed opportunity, there is an upside. We will feel a certain pride in knowing that at least you went for it and gave it your all. As the saying goes, “you can’t score if you don’t take the shot” (or even get in the game).

Along with regret is a question that will gnaw at us for every missed opportunity and chance to take action that passed us by: “I wonder what could have been?” We don’t have a crystal ball in which we can gaze into the miasma of the past to see what would have happened if we had let go of our fears and gone for it. Of course, good things don’t always happen when we take action, but I’m going to argue that more good things happen when we go for it than when we run from it. There’s another old saying that, “It’s better to make errors of commission than errors of omission.” Even if things don’t work as planned, at least we know and, with that knowledge, we don’t spend our living (and dying) days wondering what could have been.

At the end of any given day, the past year, when I retire, or on my death bed, I want to look back on my life and be able to say “I left it all out there.” We can only do that when we aren’t afraid of life. And the only way to not fear life is to believe that regret is the worst emotion you can feel.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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