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When you reach the end of your life, whether it’s decades away or in the next few years, have you thought about what you’ll regret? Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse for those suffering from serious diseases, wrote a book in 2012 called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. At some point in our lives, whether at the end or in the middle, we all regret something. Some people hold on to that regret for so long that it poisons every future experience. Here are five tips on how to let go of regret, so that you don’t end up regretting any of the top five in Ware’s book.
Take Full Responsibility
Regretting things means we wish it never happened, whatever it was. We can regret choices, experiences, purchases, lack of action, lack of courage, or anything else.
Let go of regret by taking full responsibility for what happened. You made the choices that got you to that point. We also know this as “Extreme Ownership,” wherein you accept responsibility for everything in your world, even if you’re not truly responsible for them. Doing so means you’re not experiencing the resistance that comes with avoiding responsibility.
With regret, there’s nothing we can do to change the past, so there’s nothing else to do but take responsibility for our actions (or inactions) and stop resisting the present reality.
Identify the Lesson
When enough time has passed to let you be a little more emotionally detached from what happened, identify the lesson. What did you learn from the thing you regret?
Did you say words in anger that caused a broken relationship? The lesson in that is to think before you speak—words spoken in anger are often the best speeches you never wanted to make.
Did you pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of fear? The lesson in that is to take action, anyway. Do it scared. As Ruth Soukup says, action is the antidote to fear.
Identifying the lessons in our regrets lets us make better decisions for the future. It lets us avoid making the same mistake twice—and thus ending up shouldering twice the regret.
What’s done is done. You can’t change the past, and no one else can change it for you. Stop beating yourself up. What good will that do?
Learning to forgive yourself for past mistakes can be a very difficult thing to accomplish. Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything is all right and you can forget it now. That’s a common misconception about forgiving others, too.
True forgiveness means you don’t hold it against them. Forgiving yourself means you don’t hold your past mistakes—your regrets—against yourself.
It’s hard, and will probably always be hard to do this. Give yourself grace and let go of regret by forgiving yourself.
Plan for the Future
If you’ve taken the time to extract the lessons from the things you regret, now you have a set of guidelines for your future.
What if you experience these things again?
Well, now you know what to avoid, what to stop doing, what to do more of, and how to react in certain situations. You can make a plan for the future so it won’t catch you off guard or end up fertilizing new regrets.
Potholes, speed bumps, dead ends, and false starts—not to mention all the other obstacles—fill the road of life. But you don’t have to let regret be one of those bumps along the way.
Stop to Smell the Roses
Slow down. Stop for a while. Look around at life right now. Be present.
Mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, is a great way to help us let go of regret. If we’re living in the moment, we’re not living in the past.
Concentrating on the here and now helps distance you and your emotions from the things you regret.
Instead of ruminating on a ruined relationship from a decade ago, focus on the relationships you have now. Cultivate those. Treat those with the respect they deserve—the respect you didn’t afford to that past, ruined relationship.
Instead of wishing you’d spent more time with your kids when they were growing up, turn that focus forward. Spend time with kids now who need a positive role model. Volunteer at a summer camp, join Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (or your country’s equivalent) to become a positive influence in someone’s life right now.
The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
- “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Looking at these regrets, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’d never do that!” But we do. We sabotage our own happiness because we don’t think we deserve it. We praise hard work—we’re taught that we must put in more effort, work longer hours, and make constant sacrifices to be successful. We pay more attention to what others think than stepping out in fear by following our dreams. We keep our feelings locked up because this society has conditioned us to believe that showing emotion is weak. And we lose connections with the people closest to us perhaps for no better reason than the time just slips past without notice.
Looking at these top five regrets, think about how you can use the five tips from above to avoid them proactively.
Taking full responsibility for your life means you don’t sabotage yourself. You take the first steps to keeping in contact with your friends. It’s your life—nobody else can live it for you! Don’t be afraid of your emotions. Humans are emotional people, and we shouldn’t squash that.
Extract lessons from these regrets without falling victim to them yourself. For some, experience is the best teacher, but the point is to not experience the things that lead to these regrets! Some of the best lessons come from watching others.
Forgive yourself if you have these experiences in your life—let go of the regret now so that you can plan for a better future without those same mistakes.
And last, be present. Be mindful. Take the time to think about where you are in your life. Think about what you can do with the relationships you have now to make the best of things and live a life you won’t regret at the end.