“If only…” These two words paired together create one of the saddest phrases in the English language.
In the end, more than anything else, we regret the small chances we didn’t take, the priceless opportunities we were too busy to nurture, and the good decisions we waited too long to make. Angel and I have learned this over the past 15 years from the countless hours we’ve spent coaching hundreds of clients, students, and live event attendees from around the world. The exact same regrets pop up in the personal stories people share with us, time after time.
Here are ten very common and specific life choices that ultimately lead to that “If only…” phrase of regret, and how to elude them on the average day:
1. Letting others tell us what we are worth.
We tend to forget that most people judge us based on experiences from their own life that have absolutely nothing to do with us. For example, a person might assume things about you based on a troubled past experience they had with someone else who looks somewhat like you. Therefore, basing any part of your self-worth on what they think puts you in limbo — you are literally at the mercy of their unreliable, bias perspective. If they see you in the right light and respond to you in a positive and affirming manner, then you feel good about yourself. And if not, you feel like you did something wrong.
The bottom line is that you will never find your worth in another human being or their opinions — you find it in yourself, and then you will attract those who are worthy of your energy. And also keep in mind that NOT overreacting or taking things too personally will keep your mind clear and your heart at peace. Truly, there is great freedom in leaving others to their opinions, and there is a huge weight lifted when you don’t take things personally.
2. Being too busy impressing others and forgetting about our priorities.
Ten years from now it won’t really matter what shoes you wore today, how your hair looked, or what brand of clothes you wore. What will matter is how you lived, how you loved, and what you learned along the way. So forget about impressing people for the sake of it. Be real instead!
If you want to impress someone, impress yourself by making progress on something you’re sincerely proud of. Focus on what matters! It’s quite amazing what you can accomplish in a day when you aren’t incessantly worried about what everyone else in the world is thinking and doing. Just show yourself that you can grow and get better. It’s never about impressing or competing with others. In the end, it’s just you vs. you. (Note: Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Goals & Success” chapter of our 1,000 Little Things book.)
3. Letting uncertainty stop us.
Trust me now and thank me later, embrace uncertainty! Because some of the most incredible chapters of your life won’t have a title you feel comfortable with until much later. Living is risky business. Every decision, every interaction, every step, every time you get out of bed in the morning, you take a small risk. To truly live is to know you’re getting up and taking that risk, and to trust yourself to take it. If you don’t — if you let uncertainty win — you will never know anything for sure, and in many ways this unknowing will be worse than finding out your hunch was wrong. Because if you were wrong you could make adjustments and carry on with your life without always looking back and wondering what might have been. So keep yourself in check…
You don’t need guarantees 24/7. That’s not how life works. In life you can be comfortable or courageous, but not both at once.
4. Focusing on failures instead of present opportunities.
Well it’s true, you have failed and you have been hurt in the past. But it’s also true that you have loved, and been loved. That you have risked, and received. That you have grown not just older, but wiser. And all of this carries a weight of its own — a greater weight than any particular failure or wound. Again, it’s better to have a life full of small wounds and failures that you learned from, rather than a lifetime filled with the regrets of never trying.
Have you ever seen a toddler learn to walk? They stumble and fall numerous times before getting it right. The falls are learning opportunities. Oftentimes it takes pain and patience to make lasting progress. So don’t let time pass you by like a hand waving from a train you desperately want to be on. Don’t spend the rest of your life thinking about why you didn’t do what you can do right now.
5. Holding on too tight to how things were “supposed” to be.
You can’t lose what you never had, you can’t keep what’s not yours, and you can’t hold on to something that does not want to stay. But you can drive yourself mad by trying. What you need to realize is that most things are only a part of your life because you keep thinking about them. Stop holding on to what hurts, and make room for what feels right!
Do not let what is out of your control interfere with all the things you can control. In other words, say “goodbye” to what didn’t work out so you can say “hello” to what might. In life, goodbyes can be gifts. When certain people walk away from you, and certain opportunities close their doors on you, there is no need to hold on to them or pray to keep them present in your life. If they close you out, take it as a direct indication that these people, circumstances and opportunities are not part of the next chapter in your life. It’s a hint that your personal growth requires someone different or something more, and life is simply making room.
6. Playing the victim for too long.
Life isn’t fair, but you don’t have to let the past define you. If you always play the victim, you will always feel like one. Don’t do it to yourself!
Remember that time you thought you couldn’t make it through? You did, and you’ll do it again! Don’t let your challenges get the best of you. Don’t let your insecurities bully you into a corner…
Ultimately, your healing and growth depends on your willingness to take responsibility for your life from this moment forward, regardless of who had a hand in making it the way it is now. It’s about taking control of your present circumstances, thinking for yourself, and making a firm choice to choose differently. And no, you aren’t responsible for everything that happens to you in life, but you are responsible for undoing the self-defeating thinking patterns these undesirable outcomes create, so you can grow beyond them. It’s about being the hero of your life, not the victim.
7. Waiting, overanalyzing, and never taking action.
Too often we waste our time waiting for the ideal path to appear, but it never does because we forget that paths are made by walking, not waiting. So whenever you find yourself at a point of intense decision-making where you’re caught in a cycle of over-analysis and hesitation, and you’re making zero progress, take a deep breath, break the cycle, make an educated guess on the next logical step, and take it. Even if you get it wrong, you will learn something useful that will help you get it right.
Remind yourself that it’s far better to be exhausted from small bits of effort and learning, than to be tired of doing absolutely nothing. Truth be told, the greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing simply because you can only do a little. And you can always do a little! Where you are right now is exactly where you need to be to take the next little step.
8. Being too busy to appreciate your life.
Take action, work hard, but don’t forget to pause and pay attention to life’s simple moments too. That’s honestly the best advice there is on a busy day. Realize that life is simply a collection of little chances for happiness, each lived one moment at a time. That some time each day should be spent noticing the beauty in the space between the big events. That moments of dreaming and sunsets and refreshing breezes cannot be bettered. But most of all, realize that life is about being present, watching and listening and working without a clock and without anticipation of results at every moment, and sometimes, on really good days, for letting these simple moments fill your heart with sincere gratitude.
Truth be told, you will inevitably, whether tomorrow or on your deathbed, come to wish that you had spent less time worrying and rushing through your life, and more time actually being mindful and appreciative of each day.
9. Not spending enough quality time with the right people.
At some point, you’ll just want to be around the few people who make you smile for all the right reasons. So today, spend more time with those who help you love yourself more — spend more time with those who make you feel good, and less time with those who you feel pressured to impress. Never be too busy to make room in your day for the ones who matter most. And remember that nothing you can give will ever be more appreciated than your sincere, focused attention — your full presence.
Truly being with someone, and tuning in without a clock and without anticipation of the next event, is the ultimate compliment. If you appreciate someone today, tell them. If you have something else important to say, say it. Hearts are often confused and broken open by words left unspoken. Which is a perfect segway to our final point…
10. Not expressing your love openly and fully.
Without question, you’re going to lose people in your life. Realize that no matter how much time you spend with someone, or how much you appreciate them, sometimes it will never seem like you had enough time together. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way. Express your love! Tell people what you need to tell them. Don’t shy away from vulnerable or romantic conversations simply because you feel awkward or uncomfortable. You never know when you might lose your opportunity…
In the final decade of his life, my grandfather woke up every single day at 7AM, picked a fresh wild flower on his morning walk, and took it to my grandmother. One morning, I decided to go with him to see her. And as he placed the flower on her gravestone, he looked up at me and said, “If only I had picked her a fresh flower every morning when she was alive. She really would have loved that.”
As you can imagine my grandfather’s words touched a nerve in me. And over the years I’ve often reflected on what he said that morning, and how his sentiment relates to everyone and everything I care about. I mean, I don’t want to live with needless regrets — I don’t want to wish I had done things differently, especially something as simple yet meaningful as picking flowers for the love of my life.
How to Practice Letting Go of Regrets
The points above are crucial reminders, but what if you already have regrets you’re struggling with?
No doubt, feelings of regret sometimes sneak up on us. Oftentimes we regret things simply because we worry that we should have made different decisions in the past. We should have done a better job, but didn’t. We should have given a relationship another chance, but didn’t. We should have started that business, but didn’t…
We compare the real outcomes of our past decisions to an ideal fantasy of how things “should” be. The problem of course is that we can’t change those decisions, because we can’t change the past. Yet we resist this reality subconsciously — we keep overanalyzing and comparing the unchangeable reality to our ideal fantasy until we’ve wasted lots of time and energy.
If we logically know better, why can’t we just let all our ideals and fantasies GO?
Because we identify personally with these ideals and fantasies. We all have this vision in our minds of who we are — our well-meaning intentions, our intelligence, our social impact, etc. And we make the best decisions we can of course, because again, we generally mean well. Even if you struggle with deep-seeded self-esteem issues, you probably still identify with yourself as being a decent and respectful human being.
And so when someone says something about us that contradicts the vision of ourselves that we identify with — they insult our intentions, our intelligence, our status, etc. — we take offense. We feel personally attacked, and we have a hard time letting it go.
Something very similar happens when we believe we did something — made a mistake — that contradicts the same vision of ourselves that we identify with. We take offense! In some cases we implode on ourselves — we berate ourselves for making the mistake: “How could I have done this?” we think. “Why couldn’t I have been smarter and made a better decision?” And again, we have a hard time letting it go — we have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that we aren’t always as good as the vision we have of ourselves.
So in a nutshell, our ideals and fantasies about ourselves tend to cause us lots of misery.
The key is to gradually practice letting go of these ideals and fantasies, and focus instead on making the best of reality. The truth must be embraced…
- Every bad decision we made in the past is done — none of them can be changed. And in fact there’s some good in every one of those bad decisions too, if we choose to see it. Just being able to make a decision at all is a gift, as is being able to wake up in the morning, and being able to learn and grow from our wide-ranging life experiences.
- We are not actually what we envision ourselves to be, at least not always. We are human and therefore we are multi-layered and imperfect. We do good things, we make mistakes, we give back, we are selfish, we are honest, and we tell white lies sometimes. Even when we are doing our absolute best, we are prone to slip. And once we embrace this and get comfortable with our humanness, making a bad decision tends to conflict a lot less with our new, more flexible (and accurate) vision of ourselves.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but whenever you find yourself obsessing over and regretting a past decision, you can 1) acknowledge that you’re falling into this pattern, 2) realize that there’s some ideal or fantasy you’re comparing your decisions and yourself to, and 3) practice letting go of this ideal or fantasy and embrace a wider range of reality in the present moment.
Now, it’s your turn…
One day you will find yourself closer to the end, thinking about the beginning.
TODAY is that beginning!
TODAY is the first day of the rest of your life.
I challenge you to put the principles of this article to good use.
Motivate yourself to START NOW by answering a simple question:
What’s one thing YOU CAN choose to do today that you will NOT regret?
Please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
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Photo by: Kendall Lane