March 31, 2015
(This article previously appeared on Boomerly.com.)
You can’t get to age 50 without making a few mistakes. These range from small missteps that nibble at us to larger errors that keep us up at night. Perhaps the most harmful memories are of the times when we have accidentally hurt someone else – or ourselves for that matter!
It’s natural to have occasional regrets about the past. Some of us lament the end of a marriage, while others wish that we had had the strength to end a bad relationship earlier. From my conversations with the Sixty and Me and Boomerly communities, I can tell that almost all baby boomers have at least some regrets about how they prepared for retirement. What is your biggest regret?
The question is, while it is “natural” to have regrets, do they have to hurt us? In other words, are there things that we can do to come to terms with our past and start to build a better future?
Can we ever reach a point that we can say to ourselves, “Yes, it was a mistake, but I did the best that I could based on the information that I had at the time. More important, what I learned from this situation made me a better person.”
To get some more insight into this topic, I asked the other people in our communities, “How do you live life without regrets?” We received so many wise and insightful responses that I wanted to share a few of my favorites here. I hope that they help you to come to terms with your own past and start building your future.
Talk to Someone
One of the worst things about regrets is how lonely it feels when we are dealing with them. Maybe we are too embarrassed to talk about the mistakes that we have made in the past. Or perhaps we just don’t want to burden our friends with our sad stories. Whatever the reason, having regrets can lead to isolation and loneliness, which only makes the problem worse.
(MORE: The 30-Year-Old Regret That Keeps Me Up at Night)
Several people in our baby boomer communities reminded us that it’s important to find someone to talk to. This could be a person in your circle of friends. Or it could be a spiritual advisor, life coach or therapist. When we sit alone, our thoughts swirl uncontrollably and this is especially true when we are dealing with regrets.
Sometimes the simple act of saying our regrets out loud can help us to gain perspective. Is there another side of the story that we haven’t considered? Do our small regrets sound insignificant when compared to the substance and totality of the good that we have done with our lives? In most cases, the answer is yes.
Find a Way to Forgive Yourself
Regrets are a way of punishing ourselves for things that we can no longer change. Does this sound like a constructive approach to you?
Let’s stop beating ourselves up for our past mistakes. Remember all of the good decisions that you have made and the lives that you have touched. On the whole, haven’t you lived a good life? Are your regrets really so unforgivable? I doubt it. As one woman commented, “Forgiving myself was the first step. Then I was able to start forgiving others.”
This doesn’t mean that you need to “forget” about what others did, or let destructive people back into your life. It simply means that forgiving others will allow you to move forward with your life more completely.
Acknowledge Your Regrets and Move On
Don’t get stuck in self-defeating thought loops . Acknowledge what happened and move on. There is a quote that I love from the movie Slumdog Millionaire: “Everything will be OK in the end – and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
(MORE: 9 Most Common Regrets of the Living and Dying – and What to Do About Them)
I keep this quote close to my desk to remind myself that, most of the time, the stakes are not nearly as high as our anxious minds lead us to believe. It’s OK to take time to remember the past. After all, this is how we learn and become better people. But don’t dwell on bad choices. Wait until you see the lesson emerge, write it down, and then move on.
It’s also important to remember that you don’t need anyone else’s permission or forgiveness to move on with your life. As another woman said, “Remember that some people won’t forgive you and (will) continually remind you of your mistakes – ignore them and move on!”
Learn to Live in the Present
Most people’s thoughts swing back and forth between the past and the future. Living in the present is hard, but the more you can learn to do it, the better your life will be. Remember that what’s done is done. The results of our decisions echo in the present, but the past itself can’t touch us anymore. So let it go.
In answer to our community question, one woman said “No regrets! One of my favorite quotes by Lao Tsu is: ‘If you are depressed you are living in the past; if you are anxious you are living in the future; if you are at peace you are living in the present.’ Three cheers and a twirl to living in the present! And of course remember all our fun time memories!”
(MORE: At This Stage: What We Regret)
Don’t feel bad if you have trouble calming your mind naturally. Most of us, including me, struggle with this.
At the same time, there are plenty of ways to train your mind to live in the present. Meditation and yoga are both excellent tools for quieting your mind. As a nice side benefit, both of these techniques have been shown to improve your health after 50.
Get Back into the World
Regrets can be paralyzing. Unfortunately, the one thing that we can’t afford to do when we have deep regrets is to sit still (unless we’re meditating!).
If you find yourself feeling sluggish or isolated, don’t wait to get help. The longer you isolate yourself from the world the greater your chances of developing a more serious condition like depression.
As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!” I love this advice. If your regrets feel overwhelming, take steps to reengage with the world. Join an exercise class, establish a daily ritual of walking in the park, take up dancing, mentor a younger person. Whatever you do – do something! As you develop your body and mind, you will build up the energy to face your regrets without fear.
Another woman in our online community touched on the importance of mentoring when she said, “Bad choices were stepping stones for me. I made sure I never made the same mistake twice. Do I look back? Absolutely. Only when I am giving wisdom to someone younger.”
See Your Mistakes as Learning Opportunities
As painful as it may be to admit it, mistakes are essential to learning. The goal shouldn’t be to avoid mistakes altogether, but to learn quickly from the mistakes that we do make so that we don’t repeat them.
“Regretting past choices or circumstances only means the lessons were not learned, which results in more bad choices until the lessons are learned,” said one woman. “So I study what went wrong, journal about lessons learned, forgive those who’ve wronged me and LET IT GO! Everything happens for a reason – and to teach us.”
Be Gentle with Yourself
Finally, remember to give yourself a break. Not everything needs to be rationalized and sorted through. Sometimes the best way to deal with regrets is just to smile at our foolishness and move on. You’re human, so don’t expect yourself to be anything else.
Sometimes, it even helps to think of your younger self as a separate person who is worthy of your love. For example, another woman from the community told us, “I am totally forgiving my younger self and cradle her (as if) she were here.”
Isn’t that a beautiful image?
Margaret Manning is an entrepreneur, author and speaker. She is the founder of Sixty and Me, a community of 100,000 women over 60 and Boomerly, an online service that helps baby boomers to build meaningful friendships.
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