We’ve all found ourselves regretting past decisions at one point or another. It’s part of being human, I guess. You live, you learn. And as we learn and accumulate experience, we begin to see our inexperienced past through experienced eyes.
This can make for regret.
We might realize an unintentional wrongdoing right away. Or, we might only realize it years later. Regretting past decisions, of course, pertains to the latter.
Confident people are usually calm and accepting towards past decisions. Whereas non-fident people tend to be governed by regret rather than acceptance.
When we’re regretting past decisions, we often make the mistake of beating ourselves up over something we allegedly “could have” had, said or done. But surprisingly often, it’s something we could have been or become.
“Sure, I could have been famous….”
“I could have been a lawyer…”
“I could have been married by now, if only…”
Yeah… No. No you couldn’t, and here’s why:
At any given time, we’re acting in perfect accordance with every single relevant internal disposition and external influence.
(And yes: Even when we’re regretting past decisions.)
At any time, there are a number of factors at play, all simultaneously determining the outcome of any given situation.
Some of these factors are within us; others are beyond us. Some people will claim that they’re mostly within our control; others will claim that they’re mostly beyond it. But that’s not the point here.
The point is that if you could have been something, you necessarily would have. Take any one of your statements following the logic of “I could have been [X]”, and then tell yourself why you DIDN’T become [X]. The explanation you’ll come up with is the reason why your statement is wrong in the first place.
I know this sounds harsh. So hey, take me as an example! I might tell you that I could have been a musician today. But really, I couldn’t. Because when my will to do it was at its highest, I still carried around way too much insecurity and existential indifference, and certain occurrences made me prioritize differently — in accordance with both these occurrences and my insecurity and indifference towards life.
So, am I regretting past decisions concerning my would-be musicianship? Well, I could. And I sure have. And from time to time I do find myself feeling that slight hint of regret that I didn’t practice just five minutes more every day.
Like I said, we’re human after all.
But generally, no. Because…
Regretting past decisions is lame, because we have no control over them today. Wanting to change something we can’t change is nothing more than setting ourselves up for failure.
“But wait a minute! If internal and external dispositions govern everything we do and say and become all the time, what about our free will?”
Yes, I’ve talked about this before. And, paraphrasing myself in all humility here, it doesn’t really matter whether we have free will or not.
What matters most is that we act rather than re-act. That we’re proactive rather than re-active. That we act in accordance with our desires and values, and that we feel good about the choices we make. No matter how many contributing factors determine these choices.
While regretting past decisions IS lame in itself, there’s still a lesson to be learned from our specific regrets. Like our physical pain is there to tell us about harm being done to our bodies, our regrets are there to tell us about harm being done to our desires and values.
Like with our physical pain, regret in itself will do you no good. But learn from the bitter memories surrounding it, and you’ll be able to see your path clearer and walk it more confidently.