Kathryn Schulz did an amazing lecture on regret (Ted Lecture Best of 2011). She used her regret over getting a tattoo as an example, which I found amusing since to most folks, her tattoo is not spectacular in any way. She explored her intense feelings, which came in this order:
1. Denial (make it go away)
2. Bewilderment (how could I have done that?)
3. Punishment (I could kick myself)
4. Perseveration (infinite loop of above)
Ms. Schulz also explored the surprising fact that people actually feel worse when things that turned out badly almost turned out well. The project that was almost perfect, except for one tiny, fatal flaw. The job you didn’t get, though you were in the top two.
She encourages us not to hate ourselves for our regrets. We should love our flaws and the imperfect things we create. They are the lessons learned and the path to something better.
It is probably also true that we should have relatively few regrets. Holding on to any kind of bitterness just isn’t healthy or productive. Failure is one thing – you learn and you go on. Mournful regrets hang around like a bad rash.
Limiting regrets requires disciplining your mind. If you find yourself mentally re-hashing a painful moment, stop. (You may find it helpful to say the word “stop” out loud.) If there’s a lesson to be learned from the situation, jot that down. Then shove the memory in a remote mental closet and lock the door.
As Jonathan Larson said, “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.”