Elizabeth Day: The good thing about regrets

I once attended a talk given by a palliative care physician who said that the number one regret of the dying patients she looked after was having spent too much time at work. Her words stayed with me for many months.

Dan Kennedy

At the time, I was in my mid-30s, newly divorced, frenetically trying to make a living and to cement my place on a career ladder that probably only existed in my imagination. I was about to publish my fourth novel. I had been working as a freelance journalist for a year, saying yes to every commission that came my way for fear of not having enough money to pay the rent on my tiny, beloved flat.

While I felt empowered by being wholly self-sufficient, I was also exhausted. I spread myself too thinly, always wanting to accommodate the demands of others rather than nurturing the space I needed to see friends or family, go to the cinema, spend a few hours reading a book in quiet contemplation. In essence, I was in danger of not exploring life’s richest potential. I was busy in my life, but was I living it?

After hearing the palliative care expert’s words, I started saying no more. I carved out time for myself and realised it wasn’t selfish to do so. I whittled down my friendship group to the ones who truly cared for me.

I still have my moments, but these days I am more likely to avoid being swallowed up by busy-ness. Instead of thinking ‘I have to do this’, I challenge myself to think ‘I get to do this’. Life is too short to do otherwise.

I was reminded of this salutary lesson when I read about the American ‘secret sharing’ website Whisper inviting strangers to divulge anonymously their biggest regrets. They ranged from someone who regretted not having been a bigger help as a teenager when their mother was sick and others who wished they had not ended up in the wrong romantic relationships. One person regretted spending too much money and ending up in debt; another regretted trying drugs and developing an addiction.

There was a great deal of poignancy to these regrets and, as I read through them, I naturally found myself asking what I would have shared on the website. To my surprise, I found that I didn’t have anything. That’s not to say that my life has been faultless and blame-free – far from it. More that I feel no regret for my own bad decisions or judgment when, ultimately, every single one of those moments has led me to where I am now. And I’m lucky enough to like where I am now.

Besides, every incidence of regret is a learning opportunity. Scientists have posited that the evolutionary purpose of the feeling is to encourage us not to make the same mistakes in future. If we have a painful memory of something we wish we had done better, then we are less likely to keep repeating the cycle. So any regret I might have had over the ending of a past romantic relationship is offset by the fact that I finally came to understand what I wanted in a loving partnership. All those writing jobs I said yes to but didn’t enjoy translate into a feeling of gratitude that I know how fortunate I am to have this column.

It strikes me that the more we confront the reasons for our regret, the more we narrow the gap between our ‘ideal’ selves and the selves we actually are. We start living the life we have rather than the life we believe we are owed in some mythical perfect universe.

If I do have any lasting regrets, they are regrets over any hurt I might have unwittingly caused other people. I regret not saying goodbye to a much loved ex-boyfriend six months before he was killed as a journalist while covering the war in Iraq. But even that sadness taught me something profoundly important: it taught me to value the people we have loved, who have loved us back and to never once take any of it for granted.

This week I’m…

Booking

An Eudelo Cell HIIT facial – altitude training for skin to boost regeneration.

Treating

My friends with luxury surprise packages by Une Pincée de Provence.

Keeping

Warm with the season’s perfect scarf from Black and Beech on Etsy.