Framing Regret

Photo by James Wheeler on

Have you ever heard that saying, ‘We only regret the things we didn’t do’?

It’s probably meant as an encouragement to try more things, lead a richer life and have more diverse experiences. Seize the opportunities that come your way instead of shying away from them. ‘He who dares, wins’ and so on. It’s a lovely thought–of course it’s nice to encourage people and cheer them on to be brave and do something new. I’ll drink to that.

In the actual, literal sense, however, it’s always grated on me. There are, in fact, plenty of things I have done that I later regretted and it’s really difficult to believe that that’s not perfectly common. I mean, how many of us have truly never regretted buying those jeans that were a size too small ‘for when we lose weight’?

This is where framing is hugely important. You can talk about the same life event in very different ways. ‘I should have quit that job long before I did’ vs. ‘I shouldn’t have stayed in that job that long’ has the same core meaning, but in the first, you regret something you didn’t do and in the other, something that you did. You can probably quite easily apply this to any situation you’re not 100% happy with, so you regret something you didn’t do–and the saying quite literally fits.

It seems to me though that most people who say this are really looking back at their choices like forks in the road and having gone down one and seen what’s there, they now wish to go back and try the other one too. See what’s down that road, have twice as much life. Because here’s the thing: If you only regret the choices you didn’t take, then you would still regret not having gone down that first road, right? So it’s not really about wanting one instead of the other, it’s wanting both. And that’s just greedy.

Choices have consequences. We’ve got to accept that. The real question is whether the choice was yours, and if it was, then own it.

There is an important variation to this saying, which is, ‘I would rather regret the things I did than the things I didn’t do’. That is a different story altogether. That is a saying that celebrates courage and daring and self-confidence and importantly, it looks forward rather than backward. It says something about how we aspire to live our lives from hereon, not merely how we look back on the lives we’ve already had. That perspective probably serves us better than just choosing which angle to regret past decisions from–although I hope to have as little regret in my life as possible.

What to read about another saying I took issue with? Go here for ‘Blood is thicker than water’! 🙂

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