Editor's note: This column was originally published May 26, 2005.
"One of these days, I'm gonna sit down and write a long letter to all the good friends I've known. One of these days, one of these days, one of these days, and it won't be long, it won't be long."
So go the haunting, taunting lyrics of the Neil Young song. Every time I hear them, I am reminded of the regret I still have for not contacting and making amends with an estranged friend who died a young and untimely death.
Regret can run the gamut from not betting on Giacomo in the Derby to the truly tragic. "Regret is like guilt and worry -- a useless and destructive entanglement of emotions," states Betsy, who at 54 is a busy professional woman raising two teenagers. "Admitting to regret causes anxiety, which eats up my energy, causing more procrastination and more ... regret. Really yucky cycle."
Marcia is a therapist who is familiar, both personally and professionally, with how wasteful of life's currency regret can be.
She shared with me the two things we can do with regret: Mourn what has been lost and learn why we avoided our passions, desires and goals in the first place.
Marcia also said that most of us do the best with what we can do at the time, given our situational realities, and we can avoid regret by taking this into account. She gives an example from her own experience.
"When I look back at the things I regret, I often forget the details of why I made that choice. When the details are put back into the equation, the choice becomes understandable. For example, I regret not getting my doctorate. When I made that choice I was pregnant with my only child and that was why I decided not to do the extra schooling. My choice seems reasonable and good when I remember why I made it. If I take her out of the equation, I can get bogged down with regrets."
Peter runs a fast-paced Internet business and has no patience for regret. He has figured out a way to avoid "rueing the day," which he shared with me.
"At decision time, I ask myself, 'What will I think a year from now if I don't take advantage of this opportunity ... and what will I think if I do? Regret management is an essential part of my decision-making."
I have found that people can free themselves of regret when they view life as an opportunity to learn. As most of us know, the most vivid lessons we have come from the mistakes we have made. When we have made a mistake, we basically have two options: to regret it or to learn from it.
You can choose.
I have also noticed that there are two kind of regret: regret for the the things we did and regret for the things we didn't do. As I get older, I find that the only things I truly regret are those things I didn't do -- the roads avoided, the ones not traveled.
Remember Betsy? She told me that, as she moves past 50, she realizes there are more opportunities to regret things not done. Yet, she says, "I am giving myself more and more permission with age to go ahead and do certain things ... this helps avoid more regret."
What are we waiting for?
Personally, I'm going to sit down and write a long letter. Today, not one of these days.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site: www.HealthspanWeb.com.