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Why there's nothing wrong with having regrets - we can't do without them

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Having regrets is useless – that’s a strong conviction in western culture. If an old person looks back on their life without regret, they’ve lived a beautiful life. But is it possible to avoid having regrets? And should we want to?

Kathryn Schulz hadn’t even left the tattoo parlor yet when she was already feeling regretful. She, the kind of person who always made her choices very consciously, impulsively had her body tattooed. And she could never undo it. The feeling was overwhelming, all she could think was: I wish I’d never done it. 

‘I want it to go away’

That’s how regrets work, she says in her TED Talk: they evoke denial. ‘I want it to go away’ isn’t a realistic thought, because the tattoo will never do just that. And yet, the feeling is very strong. You just don’t understand: how did I make this stupid mistake? You disapprove of your choice, may even feel the desire to punish yourself: ‘I could really hit myself.’ 

No one wants to have regrets. In our culture, the conviction that regrets have to be prevented is innate – at least, having regrets about things you haven’t done in your life. People who look back at their lives without regrets, have had a wonderful life – we often see that in movies. 

Learning to live with regrets 

But why do we disapprove regret? ‘It's almost impossible not to have regrets,’ Schulz says. ‘If you want to be a real human being, you have to learn to live with regrets.’ And she has some advice about how to do that: 

Tip 1: You’re not the only one

If you search for ‘regret’ and ‘tattoo’ on Google, you find millions of hits. 17 percent of American people regret their tattoos. It probably goes just as well for other choices. We all make decisions we regret later on – and knowing that can be very comforting. 

Tip 2: Laugh at yourself 

Laughing about ‘stupid’ jokes helps to put things in perspectives. Even in the most dreadful situations, when we’d do anything to turn back time. Schulz: ‘Everyone who’s felt pain and grief, knows black humor helps us to survive. It connects the positive and the negative.’ 

Tip 3: The lesson of the tattoo

She decided to have a tattoo –a compass- because she wanted to capture an important life lesson: the importance of discovering new things. She wanted to make herself remember. But the lesson she did remember, was a different one: if we want to have dreams in life, and to love, we have to feel pain when things go wrong. We have to learn how to love our imperfect actions, and forgive ourselves for the mistakes. 

Text: Dorien Vrieling - Photo: Liel Anapolsky