By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
How can you prevent accumulating painful regrets?
Are there any ways you can anticipate things you might regret and live your life in ways that would prevent having to recover from regrets?”
Here are some of the ways you can prevent a life filled with regrets and some thoughts about what to do when you discover your regrets.
Consider potential regrets before acting.
Most of the things people regret fall into one of 2 categories, things they did they wish they hadn’t and things that didn’t do they wish they had. Before taking any major action, ask yourself, will I regret this? If the answer is yes I will regret it, this course of action bears some more thought. A lot of the things people regret were those impulsive “spur of the moment” decisions. Often these are the result of jumping to conclusions or acting on impulse without considering the consequences.
Can this decision be undone?
Some decisions can easily be undone. You sign up for class and wish you hadn’t; you can drop that class if you do so quickly. Make a date with someone and get cold feet, you can cancel that date. For some things undoing that action may have a cost. But it’s often wiser to cancel that purchase and pay the fee, than to be stuck making payments on a car or house you don’t want, for years to come.
One of the major areas which can’t be undone is relationships. Once you’ve slept with someone, it is harder to break up. You can break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but your baby’s mother or father is forever. Once you’re married, with or without children, ending that marriage comes with both emotional and financial costs.
Delay your decision until you have more information.
Many of the decisions people regret having made were a result of not giving yourself enough time to think it over. In some places, buyers have a time period to void the sale of a major purchase. I don’t recommend you count on this. I think it’s a good idea to give buyers of expensive items time to check their purchase out and rescind the transaction is there something wrong with the item they bought. But don’t expect to return something just because you changed your mind. Once you have used something you can’t return it in the same new condition it was in when you bought it. There are lots of other actions in life, especially when it comes to relationships with other people, where you don’t have to act the moment the idea enters your head.
Think carefully about possible outcomes.
Regret often comes from the human tendency to think all your ideas are great ones when you first think them. Where possible, before you act on your inclinations, ask yourself what are the possible outcomes? Are any potential negative outcomes so severe that you’re not willing to take the chance? Regardless of how good or how exciting this possible action is if there’s a large chance it could result in a death or ruin the rest of your life you must be realistic in evaluating the risks. Be careful of the natural human fallacy to believe that you’re lucky or smart and that only the good outcomes will happen to you.
Don’t waste time on the impossible. What alternatives are available to you?
Don’t make the mistake of choosing between an action and an impossibility. Sometimes you will be forced to pick the best of 2 bad options. Sometimes you’ll hesitate because your preferred choice turns out to be an impossibility. If you are choosing between 2 very likely, very good options, use some of the other decision-making rules coming up. But, if you don’t feel comfortable with any choice, make sure you have ruled out all the impossible choices.
Consider how you feel about possible outcomes.
Many people make the mistake of trying to be totally logical and rational about the choices. Choose with your head, and you will feel the regret in your heart. While your feelings shouldn’t rule you all the time, feelings do provide valuable information. If in your heart, this doesn’t feel right, you probably should not do it.
Search for other alternatives.
Before you decide something, ask yourself are there any other possible choices? A significant source of regrets are times people chose between 2 options, say picking A instead of B, neither of which were that good a choice. Where they went wrong was failing to think about some of the other letters of the alphabet that might have been better choices.
What would a good decision maker do in this situation?
When faced with a difficult decision think about the people you know. Who that you are aware of appears to be exceptionally good at making decisions? What would that person choose?
How does this decision relate to your life goals and values?
Don’t get distracted by things the promise short-term pleasure and excitement, the next bright shiny thing. You will make better decisions when you pause to think about what are your personal values?
Once you decide against an alternative stop looking for evidence to support it.
Seems to be a part of human nature to doubt yourself. There is a problem with the way the human brain works. It’s called confirmatory bias. If we want to do something all we are likely to see re other reasons in favor of it. Unfortunately, people who decided against an alternative keep going back to that thing they decided against and looking for other reasons to go ahead and do it anyway. Once you have decided no, it is probably best to stay with that decision. On the other side of the coin if you decided to do something and suddenly get some new information that makes that decision look like one you’ll regret, don’t disregard that new information.
Use an outside expert’s advice and feedback.
Sometimes we get hung up on our own thinking. Because we think something, it must be true. When the decision has huge consequences, costs a lot of money, or might get you stuck in a situation that would be hard to get out of, it pays to seek advice from an expert. If that expert is a counselor they probably won’t, and shouldn’t, tell you what to do. What they can do is help you sort out your conflicted feelings and provide you with information about what has happened to other clients faced with this decision. Sometimes it helps just to know you’re not the only one who has had trouble making this decision.
Weigh the consequences of not deciding.
If it’s a tough decision, you need to ask yourself, what will it cost me to put the decision off? Not responding to a lawsuit or a bill may make the situation worse. Just because it’s the “best price of the year” doesn’t mean you should decide to make that purchase today. It is quite possible that the difference between today’s “best price of the year” and next week’s “sale price” won’t be all that different. Don’t convince yourself that if you don’t get into a relationship with the person you’re out with now, you will never have another chance and you’ll be alone the rest of your life. If you have doubts about relationships, it may save you a lot of pain to wait until you are sure.
For many people, life’s greatest regrets are the things they wanted to do but never did. Don’t live your life putting off getting the education you want. Reach for your dreams. Try out for that acting job. Write your book. Have you let fear keep you from deciding to do things that are especially important to you?
Talk your decision through with an empathetic person.
Besides professionals, most of us have close friends and family we can talk to about the decisions we are struggling with. Ask yourself who among them are empathetic and can understand the struggle you’re going through to make this decision. It can help to talk it out with an understanding person. Pick that person carefully. You don’t need somebody telling you what to do or putting you down for what you’re thinking.
Expect to have regrets; they are an unavoidable part of life.
Nobody gets through life without having some things that they regret. Accept that you must live life and you will never have all the information before the decision that you will have afterward. Everybody must make some decisions, and they will regret some of those. Expect those crystal balls to be cloudy and hard to see into.
If you have regrets, make repair efforts a priority.
As you move through life, you will accumulate some regrets. Where possible, try to make repairs. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. If you have regrets because you have harmed others, do your best to make your amends and make things right with them.
Learn from your mistakes, improve decision-making skills.
Make conscious decisions. Consider each decision you make in life another learning opportunity. Learn from your mistakes. Watch how others around you live and learn from their mistakes. Become aware of how you make your decisions and make them consciously. Most importantly learn from those things that you regret and try to stop making the same mistakes repeatedly.
Some additional posts about regrets:
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.) Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.
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