When I posed this question on Twitter, the stories poured out and patterns emerged. Real regrets are about bad selections in love, learning and loss, being held back by anxiety and self-blame
My 20 -year-old son simply moved into a fraternity home at his college in the US. Last month, I expended three days there trying to turn his bedroom from a fluorescent-lit hellhole into a page from an Ikea catalogue, and while constructing up flat-packs, we discussed his hopes and plans for the next three years … what he wanted from life, from love, his strengths, his fears, and how to approach his college years so that he could define himself up for a life well lived. On the final evening, I observed myself alone in a horrid Illinois hotel, still thinking about my boy’s dreads for his journey into adulthood and how I might help him make decisions he would never regret.
I went to Twitter and typed:” What is your biggest sadnes. Asking for a friend .” The answer was huge. It wasn’t just big in volume- more than 300 answers- but the tweets were devastatingly honest. I had casually asked a question that, amazingly, a lot of people truly wanted to answer. These were sad, sobering, enlightening reactions- big narratives told in 140 words to a stranger on a Saturday night. I don’t know why so many people had such strong sadness living so close to the surface- but by the end of the evening, I felt I might have learned more about life through what people regretted not doing, than through 55 years of being given advice about what to do. I’m clearly no authority on this topic, but I’d love to tell you a bit of what I considered that night.
Very few answers were lighthearted- though I loved the ones that were …
” Being sick in my father-in-law’s hand “ ” Not flying on Concorde to New York with Lionel Richie. He wanted to take me for dinner. I was working. #muppet “ “# TossUp between joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses at 14& living in a high-control group for years – OR – not seeing Patrick Swayze in Guys& Dolls “
But what emerged is that real sadness are about bad options. Not bad things happening to you, or the route that life has punched you in the face: regret is a deep sorrow about something you did, or something you failed to do. It’s anger at yourself for having enough information to have built the right decision, but building the wrong one- ie it’s about self-blame. All I had expected were a few differences of the classic” I regret working too hard- should have expended more time with the children”, but nobody said that- not one person. And most of the replies divided into six specific categories. By far the most frequent were sadness about not doing the right thing when someone died.
” Not being with Mum at the end. She died 2 hrs after I left her, it haunts me still “
” Not calling my Dad the night before he suffered a fatal heart attack, only because I had only lost 1/2 lb and I didn’t want him to be disillusioned “
” My cousin rang me on Christmas eve and I actually rushed the convo because I was cooking … she killed herself on Boxing Day “
” Not staying with my mum to the very end. I was afraid and needed to go home to my children. She died overnight. I forever fear she was in dread. The hardest portion was not the decision, but coping with the’ what if’ afterwards “
The truth is that a) we all to continue efforts to attain the best decisions possible utilizing the information available at the time, and b) we all mess up. But it doesn’t help the ache to point that out.
The saddest stories were from people who had been abused- and even in 140 characters, the latter are terrible. The damage, trauma and pain received from a range of different circumstances, but the “regret” in all of them seemed to be the same- that the survivor hadn’t spoken up sooner. It was one region in which the abused had control, and they regretted not exercising it.
” Not having the gallantry to speak up as a teen victim of sexual abuse “
” Not speaking up sooners about stepfather. Took the Savile situation for me to realise I would be believed .”
” Biggest unhappines …. my Grandad … abusing my brother and I … not having the heroism to disclose so I could have protected him …”
They all had the same message. Perhaps these survivors passing on this single sadnes with such unity and clarity will encourage others to exert that one vital control. I was humbled by their honesty.
Education was high up the listing- there were many more regret to do with school and college than I would have expected.
” Never going to University. Left me disadvantaged all my life. Never lived my potential “
” Not getting a better education and working full time from the age of 16″
” Leaving school in 80 s& not going to art college. I wanted to get a task. Found one. Still at the same workplace now “
And then, as if in reply, I also got a situated of tweets filled with big solutions.
” My sadnes: listening to teachers who told I was stupid because I can’t spell. After 2 degrees was told I’m dyslexic. Am currently on 4th degree “
” For me it used to be going into teaching instead of statute. I righted my regret. Best choice ever. I was a weakling in my 20 s. Changed for better “
” Not determining the Open University earlier “
In an age of teen entrepreneurs and endless messages telling children to” follow their dreams”, these feel like crucial lessons. I’ve read them out loud to my teenage sons. More than once. As well as the many tweets like this:
” That my mum died too young to see me turn from an ungrateful, truculent teen into a person and parent I hope she’d be proud of “
Might even get that tattooed on to their arms.
Career-choice unhappiness made me realise a pattern was developing … regret seems most often to be about dread. Anxiety of get it incorrect, leading to an unfulfilled life, followed by self-blame for being fearful.
” Too scared to risk failing at something I loved, so I succeeded at something I had no passion for “
” Not following my dream to work in radio “
” Listening to my father where reference is said my voice was too weak to be a vocalist “
” Not taking the job in Paris “
Also- a lot of lessons to be learned here:
” My unhappines: Going to the office Christmas party and then having to look for a new job the next day … Not my fault the boss’s wife turned out to be more than simply a flirt “
And then, perhaps less surprising, there was love: a few tweets from people regretting that they had declared their love and objective up having their heart transgres, but many, many more regretting not being braver and not risking vulnerability- the sadnes of having been afraid. There’s definitely a lesson in there: while there’s always the possibility of regrettable rejection, it’s better than the sadnes of not having tried.
” Not telling someone I loved them. 20 years too late now “
” Marrying the first person who asked because I guessed no one would ever ask me “
” Not following my heart many times over the years, and allowing my limited expectations to define my life and decisions. After reading many answers in this thread, I’m about to change that “
In a way most complex, there were a lot of tweets about anxiety, and what intrigued me was the self-blame. If a unhappines is defined as” feeling sad or disappointed about something you have done, or failed to do”, then it would imply these tweeters feel that living in dread is some sort of option. Nobody told,” I regret that I get cancer”, because nobody chooses to contract the disease, therefore it’s not technically a unhappines. But mental health still carries the stigma that it’s a “weakness” of some sort- and the regrets played that out:
” I regret being scared all the time “
” My sadnes: being too anxious and not assertive enough “
” I regret not came to see you sooner. Squandered years worrying about it “
” Worrying. About pretty much everything. All the time “
” Being too afraid to live “
Mental health is tough enough to handle without adding self-blame- but anxiety and self-reproach seem to be a” buy one, get one free” package. Depression’s most successful con trick is to convince its victims that it’s their own fault. The tweet” I regret letting depression and anxiety to regulation my life since teen years” could have been reframed as” I have a mental illness against which I have felt powerless since my teens “. But her tough life had been turned by her head into a personal failing and therefore a “regret”.
It was encouraging to see that right alongside the ones who regretted a life lived in anxiety were others who had made a change- now regretting the time it had taken to find their answer for this exact problem:
” Taking far too long to realise that everyone else in the world is also imperfect and winging it- just like me “
” Worrying too much about what other people thought of me- trying to uphold what I thought were their beliefs not mine “
” I regret not getting antidepressants 20 years earlier “
” Being scared all the time. Moved to France- still scary but food and life is good !”
” I used to worry about keeping up appearances but when I had a crisis ppl were so supportive “
Where there’s life, there’s clearly time to turn regret around.
Intriguingly, of all the replies, only two people mentioned money- one regretting a flat they hadn’t bought, one regretting a sale. And there were some beautiful stories.
” didn’t know I could be an athlete til I considered London 2012. This weekend I became World Champion Kettlebell Lifter in 55 -5 9 age group. Regret … perhaps I could have been an Olympian “
But my favourite of all the replies was from @dorey1414. She tweeted me this:
” I’m 54 , no friends, or family, only 18 adherents- the least on here- but I have everything I need. Biggest regret- not listening at school “
At last, here was one tiny region I could be useful … I retweeted her words and asked Twitter if they could help. Ten minutes later her follower count had gone up to 24. By the morning it was 360. She now has more than 900 and is massively excited about it, starting enthusiastic conversations with dozens of her new adherents. Having left school before her exam and worked for 38 years in a job she doesn’t enjoy, she’s using this moment as a chance to address the unhappines, and has just bought her fourth book …
” The last 20 years have been particularly bad , no one should wake up dreading the day ahead, I thought it was all I could do, but maybe not …”
Before I flew home from Chicago, I texted my college son with this advice:” The most debilitating adversary you can have is your own anxiety. Own your mistakes but don’t dwell on self-blame. Be confident. Learn from your educators – you’ll never regret that. Take hazards- they may go wrong but it’s better than regretting not having tried. Ring your mom, be kind to everyone and FFS change your sheets .” I’m already regretting the shallowness of the” change your sheets” bit.
Read more: www.theguardian.com