Through regret we realize what is really important in life. Caroline’s aunts Betty (left) and Helen (right). Both loved cooking and sharing food. Helen was exceptionally good at baking bread and cakes. Photo courtesy: Caroline Ishii.
OTTAWA — I have a motto of living life with no regrets. It has served me well, learning languages, exploring the world, approaching strangers, taking risks, and following passions.
What is regret?
According to psychologist Melanie Greenberg in Psychology Today, “regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.”
I felt smug with my motto of no regrets until I heard bestselling author Daniel Pink speak about his in-depth research into regrets for his book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.
Pink says everybody has regrets, it’s part of the human experience. What is most important is to deal with regrets intentionally and positively and not ruminate over them. He says, “if we learn what people regret the most, we also understand what they value the most. And so, this negative emotion of regret gives us a sense of what makes life worth living.”
Pink’s comments inspired me to look at my life more closely for regrets that I tried to forget or hide because I felt guilty. I let someone take the fall for my mistake because I couldn’t speak the truth. I didn’t say anything when a colleague was mistreated to avoid making waves. I was annoyed and snapped when my father asked me for what seemed the hundredth time when we were going out for dinner.
The dominant emotions in regret are shame and sadness, says psychologist Mary C. Lamia in Psychology Today.
Aunt Helen’s dinners
Near the top of my pile of regrets is not going to one of my aunt Helen’s Easter dinners.
My aunt would make large feasts for major holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. She would invite family, friends, and neighbours to come to eat. She would spend days making different dishes covering a massive table in her kitchen. One Easter dinner, no one came. We couldn’t be bothered. Our family was in the west end and too tired to travel downtown. I’m not sure what happened with the others.
My cousin and I still remember this because we regret it. She was alone in her house with all this food, and no one came. It’s heartbreaking thinking of this now. How did she feel? Lonely, sad, and abandoned? If I could change things, I would go to her house, even if it was only her and I.
I didn’t understand then what makes people truly happy. It wasn’t so much about the food, but her way of saying, “come see me, let me feed you and know that I have some value. Because for me, this is love.”
I have not regretted the life I have lived. Even though I had a hard childhood and growing up had its twists and turns, I wouldn’t be writing to you now if I had changed anything. I love the Canadian TV series Being Erica (2009-2011), filmed in Toronto. It’s about a woman who has a chance to redo things that she regretted from the past by time travelling. However, she discovers that changing something in her past affects other events along the way.
What can we do with regrets? Regrets are normal and, in fact, our most common negative emotion, says Pink. So, what do we do about them? Pink believes that addressing regrets can be transformational. “To me, regret clarifies what’s important to us and instructs us how to do better,” says Pink. He says that thinking about our regrets, talking about them, and—when possible—doing something about them can help us improve our decision-making, boost our performance, and deepen meaning in our life.
Tools for regrets
Pink discussed with psychotherapist Amy Morin on her Verywell Mind podcast three ways to turn regrets into opportunities to develop mental strength.
Disclosure. Sharing your regret is helpful because negative emotions are painful and menacing. When we convert them into words by writing or talking about them, it helps us understand them.
Morin says you can’t do anything about the past. But the more you try not to think about something you regret, the more you might be haunted by it. Think about a few regrets, and acknowledge them to yourself or someone else.
Self-compassion. Based on the self-compassion research of Kristen Neff, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, self-compassion means giving ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. Morin says most of us struggle to be kind to ourselves. We’re often much more critical of ourselves than we are of other people. If you beat yourself up for a mistake you made, stop and ask yourself—what I would say to my friend right now? In this way, we can learn and grow from experiences.
Psychological distance. These techniques allow us to take a step back, giving ourselves the ability to solve our problems without emotions. Pink says you can talk about yourself in the third person. You can use distance in time—what do I want in ten years? You can ask—what would you tell your best friend to do?
What’s love got to do with it?
What about doing things for others even if we may not want to? Like going to my aunt Helen’s dinner when we didn’t want to be bothered. I believe it’s about love. When we love another, we do things for them that we may not want to because it makes them happy.
Acknowledge that you are choosing to do something, even when you don’t want to do it. Otherwise, anger and resentment often arise through side comments and actions that are not kind to the person we are doing the so-called good deed for. Knowing that we are in control and we have the option not to do it is love. Doing it because we would later regret not doing it is self-love.
Aunt Helen revisited
After moving away from Toronto, I would visit my aunt Helen when I was in town. I would ask her out to eat Japanese food in her hood, which she loved. I would send her postcards from wherever I travelled. I would ask her for the recipes I loved and copy them from recipe cards in her crowded kitchen. I sometimes called her long distance to see how she was doing. She would be concerned that I was spending money on a long-distance call, so most of the conversation was her telling me to hang up. Maybe these actions were my way of making up for the times I couldn’t be there for her.
I believe she knew I cared about her and loved her, at least I hope so. After a bad fall at her home, my sister and I visited her when she was in the hospital. As we were leaving, she grabbed my hand firmly, looked into my eyes, and said, “continue travelling and do lots. I wanted to travel but didn’t do much, but you do it, okay?” I said yes and that I loved her, or maybe that was only in my mind. We didn’t really say “I love you” in our family.
I believe there are two kinds of families. The ones that say I love you all the time to each other. Those are the kinds you see on TV and in the movies. The other never say I love you, and you must guess what love means. That was mine, and I believe many others. Over time, you learn that actions are more important than words, and perhaps there was love more than you realized.
Life with death
I was too young in those days of my aunt’s dinners to know why we do things for people we love. We are irritated by someone and hang up the phone abruptly, slam the door as we walk away, or fume about them afterward. Or we can’t be bothered to go to dinner. We say next time. We think people will be around forever. But we learn over time that this is not the case. People we love die before we can tell them how we feel, or we didn’t know it would be the last time we would speak with someone.
That’s why I’ve been approaching life with death. I ask myself, will I regret not doing this later in life or before I die? If yes, I do it! If not, I don’t do it or proceed with caution. I imagine it’s the last time I will interact with someone before they or I die. It may not be true, but what if it is? This changes everything, and I have fewer regrets.
What is love?
The conversation I had with my aunt in the hospital was our last. She died shortly afterwards. I was in NYC getting ready for a birthday dinner when I got the call from my sister. My heart sank, and I cried profusely, repeating in my head the last words she told me in the hospital.
Aunt Helen’s death on my birthday had special meaning for me. I felt she was saying, “I know you’re travelling and doing lots. I’m happy for you.” At my birthday dinner, I toasted aunt Helen for what we had given to each other. In all its awkwardness, mediated by food and quick phone calls, and through regrets, I can see now that there was love. I am grateful.