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Regret: How You Can Reshape the Past

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

After a contentious presidential election season, in which there must be one winner and one loser, it is likely that those who lost look back upon the campaigns with a degree of regret. They may regret a specific moment, say a flub during a debate or a choice made about campaign strategy, or a missed opportunity.

Whether it’s presidential politics or our own life choices, we all must face moments of opportunity lost and mistakes made.

According to George E. Vaillant, author of Triumphs of Experience, how we handle regrets can leave us either bitter and resentful or at peace with the past.

Vaillant discusses regrets in a recent Wall Street Journal article. His observations are based on a study begun in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s of 268 Harvard undergraduate men (Harvard wasn’t coed at the time).

The students were originally recruited for a long-term psychological study aimed at pinpointing personal attributes that most reliably predict a successful life.

Over the years, the study found expected results, for example that alcoholism has a devastating effect on professional and family life. It also found surprising results, such as men whose maternal grandfather’s lived longest were more likely to enjoy good mental health.

In recent years as the participants have approached and entered their late 80’s and 90’s, the focus of the study has shifted. It no longer targets future success, but instead looks at how the men have come to terms with their past.

Vaillant recounts interviews with study participants, in which they recount their life’s regrets. These stories include a doctor who regrets his youthful inability to have satisfying personal relationships, men who thought not of their wife, but one the one who got away, a man who regretted his emotionally cramped marriage, and one who regretted choosing a profession as a lawyer, rather than pursuing his artistic dreams.

Past regrets, Mr. Vaillant found, can be instilled with new meaning. And personal growth, he suggests need never end.

The men who reflected on missed opportunities, paths untaken and life’s mistakes without bitterness or anger tended to reframe or shape their experience, putting it into the context of their entire life.

The man who regretted giving up on his artistic dreams, reinterpreted his work with young associates in his law firm. He saw himself as an artist in mentoring these young people.

In another example, a man unhappy in his cramped marriage, realized that his choice of partner wasn’t to blame. Instead he saw that his own restraint and reserve were the cause. This acceptance of himself and the past allowed him to value and understand, rather than regret his marriage.

According to Hamilton Beazley, author of No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind doesn’t mean denying the regret or the serious effects of the regret. It does mean coming to terms with the circumstances that contributed to the regret, learning where possible and letting go of painful emotions associated with the regret.

In this post-election time or whenever we are haunted by missed opportunities or mistakes made, we might well want to learn from these Harvard men, now looking back on long lives. From their stories we can remember to accept ourselves (and others) for who we are, reinterpret our past in generous terms and let go of painful emotions.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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