A whiff, a touch, a gentle breeze, someone’s child, a couple at the coffee shop holding hands, a distant memory, someone’s vacation home, pictures of travel in South America, a grant denied, a gift received, a cupcake eaten, a promise broken, a drink taken, love unspoken, an unkind thought spoken, an expense incurred, a trip deferred, bridges burned– all sorts of regrets lurk through the alleys of the midlife brain. Seemingly unique to one but common to many – pedestrian regrets about relationships, careers, uncoupled loves, and unfulfilled dreams. Secret regrets that surprise the holder and the listener.
The thought of regret is on my mind because of this blog. I had almost forgotten that I used to blog years back when livejournal was a top blogging platform. As an immigrant single parent-doctoral student, my vantage point was a rare perch. I started it as a release from my all-consuming dissertation. I quit after I finished my dissertation. Now I wish I hadn’t. The writing was fun and therapeutic but my regret is that without even a proper goodbye, I abandoned my followers who cheered me on in my journey. And with that, a minuscule chance that I may have been on the list of Big Bloggers today.
Most long term regrets like mine are regrets of inaction, about opportunities missed. Yesterday, I met an ex Mormon with whom I had the most interesting conversation about her loss of faith and a lifetime of regrets. Regrets of inaction stay longer with you. Regrets about actions taken are usually short term. “I wish I hadn’t had that drink last night; I wish I hadn’t said No to my spouse; I wish I hadn’t bought that dress that I didn’t need; I wish I hadn’t lied to my mother when she asked me how I was.” Most people’s regrets are about education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure, in that order. On a side note, women harbor more romantic regrets than men who move on to other relationships far more quickly. But paradoxically, women also initiate 75% of divorces.
There is a lot of information about the psychology and neuroscience of regret. Most advice focuses on how to forgive oneself and move on to banishing regret. I think you should do the opposite. Dwell on your persistent regrets because opportunity breeds regret. Diminishing opportunity means diminished regrets, which is why most healthy older adults let go of regrets. Your persistent and intense regrets have a message. They tell you that that you are open to possibilities of renewal; that you can correct your decisions, do something different, and change your life. Midlife is when you are old enough to know what you want and young enough to go for it. So hold on to those regrets, nurture them, and ask them to talk to you and listen to them. Don’t banish them. Instead make friends with them.