Dealing with Regret

Trombone players in New Orleans


How do we deal with regret when the decisions we make in life prove wrong?

I’m going through that time of my life where I think to much about what I could have done differently, and should have done. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

What happens as we get older and we suddenly realise we should have been a writer; a musician; a lawyer. We should have married differently or invested that money or not invested and travelled the world. What are the decisions you regret and how do you deal with them?


WE’RE off to have high tea at the exclusive Windsor Hotel in Melbourne, a privilege for which one must book weeks in advance.

It’s my partner’s birthday and we’re due for the 1pm sitting. We’ve left ourselves two hours so we can meet friends for a drink first. The lights go red. We have a choice to make. The GPS tells us to go straight down St Kilda road. I say Kings Way, which is my preferred route into town.

It’s one of those moments. In movies, the plot moves forward based on the decisions characters make. If you turn right, gold; if you turn left, an accident. How to choose, why do we choose? And how do we deal with regret if the decisions we make in life prove wrong?

In virtual reality, bad decisions don’t matter. I’m studying film editing. If you make a mistake you press Command Z until your edits are erased and you can start over. “Wish I could Command Z my ex,” I heard someone quip.

So here we are. Left or straight? The GPS wins. Straight we go – straight into the annual Fun Run traffic. Gridlock. No right turn, no left, no way of getting off the road. One hour and we’ve moved a few metres. I cancel our friends.

We could walk at a quicker pace but there’s nowhere to stop and park. I’m flushed and anxious. My partner isn’t. “Don’t worry babe, it’ll be OK,” he smiles, his blue eyes gentle and calm. He’s the exact opposite to me in temperament.

From a side street we can see Kings Way; as I suspected, it’s clear of traffic. I’m determined to join it. “Here,” I yell, “turn left now,” and wonder why no one is following. Because suddenly we’re in a dark tunnel. “Oh my God! We’re heading out to Gippsland!” I scream. He’s laughing at the adventure.

Finally, a turn-off. It’s to Richmond. I know this street will take us into town. We’re late but they’ve kept our seat.

We skol Champagne to unwind. I’m frazzled. He’s calm. I can’t settle; he’s soothed. He says: “We could’ve taken Kings Way and had an accident. How do we know?”

It’s true. As we get older we regret our mistakes, opportunities not taken, loves lost, wrong turns. Because we always presume the other path would have been better. Not my man. I toast his health, and I make another decision. To follow him on the road less travelled: the road of acceptance.

Please Comment and share your stories


The Australian.


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25 Responses to Dealing with Regret

  1. Jean Burman 5 July 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    Thanks Ruth for asking the question 🙂 it really got me thinking. I’m studying Creative Industries. As an artist I guess it makes sense [grin] I always wanted to study… but life kind of got in the way. There can be no regrets though while there’s still time left to pursue our dreams…

  2. Ruth Ostrow 4 July 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    Much luck at University (what are you studying?) and thanks for your lovely positive email

  3. Jean Burman 4 July 2011 at 11:29 am #

    I’m dealing with my regrets one at a time. I’ve gone back to University and have started my degree. Yes it will take time… but I’d rather spend time doing it… than spend the rest of my life regretting it [or talking about it] It’s time! [grin]

    I also started saying yes. It started as a joke really… but soon I could see the wisdom in the choice. And it IS a choice… to say YES… instead of automatically defaulting to NO.

    Saying yes eliminates the inner argument… and opens up a world of possibilites. I’m looking forward to a future with few regrets. Because in the end I will have done all that I wanted.

    Thanks for asking the question Ruth… I enjoyed thinking about the answer 🙂

  4. J. S 16 June 2011 at 3:22 am #

    Hey, I read your column in the Weekend Australian, and you asked how other people deal with regret… well I wrote an article last month on regret…

    Can Alcohol and Regret be directly correlated?

    I pose this question for the purpose of examining the results a friend and I received after compiling a list of our regrets one afternoon. Now it’s not every day that we carry out unusual activities as such; but the preceding night and the unfortunate events it held for both of us, called for a swim at the beach, followed by some serious life assessment. The impetus for our depressive state can partly be contributed to the lack of sleep and vitamin b in our bodies that morning, but is more related to the bad decision made as a result of alcohol.

    Not being a person in denial, unlike some people who tattoo “No Regrets” on their skin; my emotions are dealt with in writing- and in this case, it was a written list of regrets. Passing me and pen and a pad, my friend and I proceeded to compile the list in silence, with momentary sniggering every thirty seconds or so. After scanning our lists in disgust, it came to my attention that nearly every regret occurred when we were drunk. Perhaps this is just an individual case that can be attributed to our demographic, geographic, psychographic and behavioural traits, or maybe we simply need to cut down on the booze, but the list in a way highlights the correlation between excessive drinking and regrets.

    On completion of our lists, we thought the necessary thing to do would be to burn the pieces of paper in the back garden. I’m not too sure what relevance burning the lists had, maybe it was for symbolic purposes… i.e. the burning representing final eradication of the regrets from our thoughts, but it oddly seemed to relinquish vented up frustration in a spiritual way.

    Australia is known for its drinking culture, in fact, Australians drink like fish- just ask any Italian, so it’s extremely hard avoiding ‘After Work Drinks’ and ‘Sunday Sessions at the Pub’ when they’re so deeply embedded within everyday life. So if you feel that you may have a few regrets in the closet, my advice is to make a list and see how many of them were alcohol induced. If you’re finding that this is the case for the majority; then it’s time you took your liver on a holiday.

  5. Norma Howley 15 June 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    My children used to tease me – call me “Mrs Dithers” – “Just make a decision, Mum. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong!” Now I find that once I’ve made a decision, THEN I know if it’s right or wrong.

    The story a woman told me about nearly dying after being attacked late at night : She found herself looking down at her body lying on the footpath, then felt herself being drawn through a passage and coming out into a beautiful place and talking to someone she assumed was Jesus. When she told him she regretted the path she’d taken in life, he showed her a vision of that path and also the path she wished she’d taken – both paths ended at the same destination. Although she could see loved ones who’d died waiting to greet her, “Jesus” said it wasn’t time and she must return. A couple of people found her and helped her to reach home. Afterwards she no longer wasted time regretting anything and reached a more comfortable way of leading her life.
    I understand it is emotions like regret, resentment, jealousy, etc that “eat away” at us can be one of the main causes of cancer. And as we can inherit physical genes from our borebears, maybe unresolved hurts are also inherited which would explain why some children are born with cancer – just an interesting thought.
    Another helpful way of making decisions – make a list of possible solutions for a particular problem, then look at the page and see which one says, “Pick me! Pick me”. Asking for guidance in prayer helps some people. Best wishes, Norma Howley

  6. Ruth Ostrow 14 June 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Helen, as always a thought provoking contribution. I still argue with you in my head about your blog to me re the cafe charging for water. And think of the heart warming things you said about your Holocaust parents. You have so many interesting things to say. Again thank you for your contributions to my blogs, and this one is so powerful. I hope everyone reads it.

  7. Helen 14 June 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    There’s enough to be sad about in our lives without the unnecessary burden of regret.

    I have copied this for you off a facebook link and it shows us what are the most common regrets.( I am having such computer problems so haven’t been communicating as much. But you should hop onto facebook a bit more.)

    Nurse Reveals top 5 Regrets people express on their Deathbeds.
    By Bonnie Ware(who worked for years nursing the dying)

    1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

    This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

    It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

    2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
    This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

    By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

    3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
    Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

    We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly,in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

    4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

    Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved.Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
    It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip.But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks,love and relationships.

    5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

    This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have sillyness in their life again.
    When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again,long before you are dying.
    By: Conscious Connections

  8. Ruth Ostrow 13 June 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    A wonderful positive reply thank you Bronwyn

  9. Bronwyn Barter 13 June 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    I hear people say “I wish that I didn’t…….marry that person..stay in that job so long…drink so much …wasted my education…” etc. However making mistakes is our way of learning what NOT to do.
    We can’t get it wrong!! This is our life, it is unique, our learnings and lessons are our own and individual. We need to make errors in judgement to learn how uncomfortable it is for us, and maybe the recipients of out actions. That’s how we get to understand the consequences of our behavior and make some corrections. Making corrections with out invalidation, gives us our own permission to move on without the introversion of guilt .
    I love my mistakes, they have shown me how to act and speak differently,and hopefully better. I have forgiven most of the shame, although every now and then I am reminded of some outrageous mistakes of my younger days!!
    I am now who I am because of my mistakes, and corrections, regret for the past is a waste of Spirit.

  10. Siti Salamah Pope 12 June 2011 at 11:49 am #

    How many thousands of replies will you have, I wonder…. Surely everyone has a zillion regrets!

    Mine centre on the fact that I lost my virginity young, and began sleeping around. Then I met the man I knew I wanted to marry – because he was a very spiritual man – and of course I slept with him beforehand. Well, having had some experience of sex, and finding this guy was terrible in bed, what did I do? First, I tried to teach him how to make love, lovingly, to me, which didn’t work; he just had no idea of how to be present in his own body, how to make physical loving, lovely, and loveable! So I had to decide: do I marry this man and live a life without good sex, or do I give him up?
    The spiritual side of me won, and we got married… and we lived together, following the Subud spiritual practise together for 55 years until he died last year.
    This, I certainly do not regret. What I DO regret is having slept around before we got married. Why? Because the most important requirement for spirituality is purity – which is almost a dirty word today! – and in sleeping around you pick up stuff, influences, energies, from your sexual partners. This encases your inner self and thus prevents you from finding yourself, your inner Self. And the consequence of this, for me, was that it took me a few decades to get rid of all the influences of the men I had slept with, and delayed my psychological and spiritual development for many, many years.
    How did I deal with these impurities? Luckily the spiritual training in Subud does just this: initiated into the latihan practise, it sets in motion a process of cleansing, purification, which – finally, Thank God! – set me free to be myself. My Self.

  11. Greypower 12 June 2011 at 10:30 am #

    My story – we built our house and fab garden 20 years ago but we were struggling financially as we only had the OAP as income and were late 70’s in age. My husband was desperate to stay and wanted to take on ‘reverse mortgage’ but i would not agree ; We explored other avenues we thought would help but were not successful, so,very reluctantly decided to sell and ‘downsize’ so we could have some $ to invest.

    It took 3 stressful years and during that time I tried to believe that that was because the house we wanted was not on the market, but I didn’t quite believe it. I must have looked at over 50 houses and was so depressed about what we’d have to live in.

    I had a wish list — walking distance to bus stop and shopping centre, big block, backing onto a park, established garden with big trees, lots of glass facing north and more – I did not expect in my wildest dreams that it would happen, perhaps one or two of the wishes, but not all — but it did happen, all of it!

    We love this house and wonderful garden – it is better, much better than our previous place with the added plus of all the ‘wishes’ .

    If we’d gone with reverse mortgage we’d still be at our old place. We would have missed out on this little paradise.

    Life is so interesting!

  12. Jane 11 June 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    I regret not having my children earlier. Say 10 years earlier … But couldn’t choose which 10 years I would be prepared to give up! My 20s were fabulous for career and travel, and my 30s made me the $$ to enable me to stay at home and enjoy my children thoroughly! But our biological clock doesn’t think like that… And so as I near 40, should I have my 4th child? But on that matter I am sure that I will regret the children I didn’t have more than those I did … So I better get off the iPad and into bed with my husband!

  13. Muriel 11 June 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    Ruth, when you see a fork in the road, take it

  14. Brendan 11 June 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I often read your columns as I can resonate with some of your comments. This is the first time, though, I feel compelled to write. I think that the comment ‘we regret…’ is to general. Preferably it ought to read ‘some of us…’ I believe that at all times we are doing the best we can do. Our decisions are based on what is happening to us at that time, whether it be our consious or unconsious drives, our background,personality or our situation at the time. It is only in hindsight that perhaps we could have made a different choice. What is done is done. We can only live in the present. And yes, we are not very good at predicting what makes us happy.
    We can be very critical of ourselves if we live in the past and as regret is an emotion could lead to further emotional misery.

  15. Philip 11 June 2011 at 7:27 am #

    First thing that came into my mind was lyrics to frank sinatra song MY WAY ! When read title of you column today!

  16. Ruth Ostrow 10 June 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    Hey guys read my column on this matter. it will be posted on line at the Australian at midnight

    And later in the day on this site.

  17. Ruth Ostrow 10 June 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    I like this quote. It became cliched over the years due to so much use, but it really is very meaningful

  18. Ruth Ostrow 10 June 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    Mephisto I have a good story similar to this one. Took on more than I could chew at work. Which was one of my typically bad decisions. I should know after all these years that stress sends me into a clinical depression, being prone to it as I am. Ended up on sick leave, sitting in a health retreat trying to fight the Black Dog with exercise and fresh air. It was a dreadful time I felt like a complete failure, and spent most of my time in the room regretting my decisions, and watching mindless television. I did come out from time to time, and during the retreat met a very funny guy who made me laugh. He brought me back to good health by allowing me to be childlike and joyful. We are still together, two years to the week. 🙂

  19. Mephisto 10 June 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    Funny story about a bad decision that had good consequences. Decided to go snowboarding, good decision. Took a huge risk, bad decision. Ended up with a badly broken leg. At rehab met a woman. Still together six years later. Life’s bad decisions can yield fruit. Lessons learned, and love earned.

  20. Kirst 10 June 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    I gave a brief answer to this on twitter, I believe that wisdom is what makes some one regret what “may have been”. Often when the chance is there we dont take it, I guess its called hindsight. I have regrets as I’m sure most people do…the “if only” but then if I had’ve done “if only” I may be regretting that as well. I guess i now live a bit more by the motto “if you see a chance take it ” 🙂

  21. Ruth Ostrow 10 June 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Yes Kate, same same. I have just gone back to university full time in my latter years, ! I have to do lots of subjects I would not have had to do if I’d finished my degree. I had one year to go and I ran off travelling. But I don’t regret it. Instead of studying I lived in the Middle East and got a job as a journalist and just had one of the most incredible learning years of my life. I am paying for it now but I would not change what I did.

  22. Ruth Ostrow 10 June 2011 at 11:23 pm #

    Yes I often think of my childhood sweethearts. Its a funny one realising that we chose one partner over the other for reasons we no longer understand. But I think this to myself… we make decisions that seem to fit the situation at that time. We are either motivated by passion or we accept unconsciously that someone has good genes for our children, or we want to be fascinated. Its odd, because our needs change over and over, and we often can’t relate to who we were. My way of coping is to forgive myself for growing learning and evolving over the years.

  23. Marlene 10 June 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    Regrets I have a few, but then a few too many to mention… I regret not marrying the man who I was in love with at 29. I left him because I felt bored. Two divorces later, and a long time between courses, I find myself thinking often of what could have been. I didn’t know then how important it was to be with a good man, and as for the boredem I was just bored with myself. How do I cope with this regret? I just let myself dream.

  24. Iann 10 June 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    I wish I’d studied at university. Its too late in life now. But I wonder what i would have been if I stayed and studied instead of going off travelling around the world and ending up doing odd jobs. Jack of all trades master of none, they call me. My kids are now in professions and I can see how all these years I’ve envied them. I would have made a fine architect.

  25. Kate 10 June 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    I regret not staying at University and finishing my degree. I had one more year to go. Now in order to get my degree in psychology, 20 years later, I have to start all over again and its much harder because Statistics is an impossible subject. I keep thinking that of that saying youth is wasted on the young!

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