There’s a haunting some experience when they look back on their lives. A phantom lurks in empty crevices of the mind where something’s missing. That hollow space is reserved for the memory of an experience that sadly never was. Regret, in its truest form, is the ghost of what could have been.
When people speak of their greatest regret, they rarely talk about something they did. Rather, they’re usually hung up on what they failed to do.
Those regrets of lost opportunities are painful. No matter what is said in an attempt to ease their sadness, there’s little consolation for the grief.
What can you and I do now to prevent the unnecessary haunting of regret in our own lives?
It really comes down to three key elements: courage, self-discipline, and a long-term view.
Former palliative care worker Bronnie Ware wrote of regrets her patients expressed in their final days in a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. The most common regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
It’s easy to get caught up living our lives the way others expect instead of how we want. Once in this trap, we find it hard to set ourselves free from this pattern, so we end up justifying our decision to concede with excuses.
Courage is required to live according to the way we’re called. Without courage, we don’t take the first step or dare rock the boat. And nothing changes.
In his book, No Excuses! The Power of Self-Discipline, Brian Tracy wrote “One quality that most philosophers, teachers, and experts agree on is the importance of self-discipline. Discipline is what you must have to resist the lure of excuses.”
This is the action response. Self-discipline is the ability to make ourselves do the work when it’s hard, when we’re distracted, and when we’re tempted to make excuses.
As Jim Rohn said, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”
A Long-Term View
Day to day, we give little thought to putting things off for another time. We tell ourselves we’ll always have tomorrow, then the day after, then next week, and so on. This view is short-sighted and focused on just getting through the momentary busyness.
But when we have a long-term view, we hold today in higher regard. We recognize the value of investing the time we’re given instead of frivolously wasting it.
My Own Haunting
I didn’t have the courage, self-discipline, or long-term view in my 20s or 30s to consciously think about such things. Regret wasn’t even a blip on my radar. But it showed up in red in my 40s during some difficult discussions with my mother as she started sharing her own regrets.
Not surprisingly, she mourned for what she missed out on and experiences she never had though desired greatly.
It was like something inside me cracked wide open. Many nights, I woke up screaming as ghosts haunted my sleep. The weight of pending regret hit hard and reminded me something important was missing in my life.
I’d obediently followed the traditional, safe career path, but all I wanted to do since childhood was write. I needed to write. It was then I started to hear the ticking clock reminding me to get on with it.
Before It’s Too Late
The point where it’s too late to avoid regret is hard to distinguish. After all, we don’t know what our future holds or when our clock will stop. The surefire way to prevent regrets is to do something now. Don’t leave anything meaningful undone.
Today, I write. I still wrestle with courage every time I hit the publish button and I still struggle at times with self-discipline to sit down at the keyboard. But the long-term view is calling me to work hard so I can avoid regret later.
We’re not born with courage, self-discipline, or a long-term view. They are learned. Courage means facing our fears. Self-discipline requires us to stop procrastinating and making excuses. Add a long-term view, and that’s a powerful combination.
Whatever your challenges are, I urge you to think about how these three elements could keep the ghosts of regret at bay in your life.