A quick Google search for the popular adage “Live life without regrets” yields a dozen articles recommending strategies to do just that: finding ways to live life with no regrets. But many of us do live with regrets–things we wish we’d done, things we wish we hadn’t done, desires to go back in the past to change it. In my experience as a psychologist and professional coach, I know first-hand how painful it can be to live with regrets. Recently, this led me to wonder how the research might help us both minimize and cope with the inevitable regrets we have. 

Researchers Shai Davidai of the New School and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University published a study in 2017 that found that what haunts us most isn’t our failures to live up to certain responsibilities in life–or what they call our “ought” selves. Rather, it’s our failures to live up to our goals and aspirations, or our “ideal” selves. Our “ideal self” is the person we are striving to become and, providing we are not trying to be perfect or become the impossible, working toward this means we are growing and developing. In other words, it hurts most when we regret the things we could have or would have done, not the things we should have done. 

Why is this? Davidai and Gilovich’s theory is that we don’t have a lot of regrets related to our “ought” selves because it is simpler to correct those regrets. There are rules we follow when it comes to things we should do. But it’s much more complicated to live up to our aspirations, like being a good leader or a good parent. 

In my experience, mothers often forget to pay attention to both understanding and working toward their “ideal” selves as they focus on caring for others. As the years pass, and especially as our children grow up and leave to start their own lives, we begin to regret not spending enough time investing in our ideal selves. Somehow we forgot about the non-mom part of who we are while we were helping our kids discover who they are.

We can minimize our regrets, whether in relation to our “ideal selves” or our “ought selves”, by being more intentional in our day-to-day lives. Although difficult, it is so important for us to slow down and make thoughtful choices about how we spend our time and energy. We need to be engaging in activities and pursuing goals that are important to the non-mom part of ourselves even if it is in the tiniest of ways each day.  

Woman sitting alone in the kitchen to demonstrate coping with regretNotice that I didn’t say we can eliminate regrets. All we can do is try to prevent them from happening in the future! Here are a few things to keep in mind as you cope with the inevitable regrets in your life:

Remember regrets are inevitable! We all look back on our actions and think of ways we could have done better. However, we are not doing ourselves any favors by living in our regret, thinking over and over again: “What if?” So instead, we can acknowledge the pain of our regret, yet still glean something useful and productive for how we behave in the present. 

Expect mistakes. Chasing a standard of perfection is not only unrealistic (we all make mistakes!), but it can also negatively impact our mental health. Making a mistake feels awful, but it also provides the opportunity to learn and grow. Use what you learn to do better next time. I have said this a million times, “You cannot perform at your best by focusing on your worst!” 

Try your best. As I’ve written before, we can strive to take responsibility for our choices in a way that lets us say: I wasn’t perfect, but I did my best. In my experience, when you know you did your best you can have self-compassion and heal. 

Forgive yourself. When you do fall short, remind yourself that it is human to make mistakes. Make amends where you can. And at the end of the day, be kind to yourself.

The bottom line? It hurts when we harbor regrets about things we could or should have done in the past. We can do our best to avoid the pain of these regrets by living intentionally, developing a strong sense of who we want to be (our “ideal selves)”, and defining goals and action plans for our own growth. Acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable along the way is key. As a professional coach for women and mothers, I would be honored to help you as you work toward becoming who you want to be! 

Contributor Statement: Melissa Santos (melissasantos@alumni.stanford.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melissa currently works as a psychology lab manager and is preparing to apply for graduate programs in child development.

Citation: Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18(3), 439–452. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000326