A Word on Regret
Posted on 31st October 2023 at 21:26
A feeling of regret occurs when a person believes their past actions or behaviours, if changed, may have achieved a better outcome. Regret is often closely associated with feelings of guilt, remorse and shame. It motivates us to amend our actions if possible. The things we are most likely to regret are the things we didn’t do. Regrets of inaction are stronger and persist longer than regrets of action yet we are less likely to correct an inaction, sometimes, simply, because it is no longer possible.
Australian author Bronnie Ware, worked in palliative care for eight years, spending a lot of time with those that were dying. She noted the regrets that people had while looking back on their lives and noted these in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying -– A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.  The top five she noted were:
1. I wish I had lived a life true to myself not the life people expected of me
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
4. I wished I had stayed in touch with my friends
5. I wish I had allowed myself to be happier
From my own experience with terminal clients in a different culture to Bronnie, I would say that the number one regret is the same. In therapy we encounter regret frequently in the course of a life story. We seldom hear the ‘Je ne regrette de rien’ as sung by Edith Piaf or the ‘I did it my way’ as sung by Frank Sinatra, though many aspire to these sentiments. In truth, it is not possible to not have any regrets. Due simply to our human nature, there will be opportunities missed, chances not taken, wrong decisions made and so on. In essence, regret is a type of mourning. Indeed, the word regret is believed to be Scandinavian in origin, being akin to the Old Norse word grata, meaning ‘to weep.’ Regret can be described in emotional terms as sorrow, grief, or pain and in cognitive terms as remembering and having misgivings 
In her book, The Anatomy of Regret, psychoanalyst Susan Kavaler-Adler, uses the term "psychic regret" to capture the essence of the process of facing regret consciously and how critical psychic change can emerge from such a process. Once the origins are understood that lead to the action or inaction that is regretted, and the grief sadness of regret is felt, a person may then have the capacity to tolerate the loss felt, relinquish defences and enable repair of internal and external relationships. Intermingled with the processes of grieving and acceptance, is the process of self forgiveness.
Despite the patients she worked with being on the threshold of death, Bronnie Ware learned not to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth and change, when individuals worked through the emotions associated with regret. Without exception, she witnessed each patient finding their peace before they died.
If you need help working through regrets, get in touch here.
1. Ware, B. (2019) Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Hay House Inc.
2. Landman, J (1987) Regret: A Theoretical and Conceptual Analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 17: 135-160
3. Kavaler-Adler, S. (2013) The Anatomy of Regret: From Death Instinct to Reparation and Symbolization through Vivid Clinical Cases. London . Karnac
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