What can you change while there’s still time?
“I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.” — Bill Bryson
What do you regret?
Not getting the chance to say goodbye? Staying too long in a bad relationship? Letting go of a great one? Poor work or financial choices?
Or spending too much time agonising over friends and being liked, your body, your looks, your weight?
Regret is widely touted as one of the most common negative emotions — and my clinical observation backs that up. Most people have regrets: they long to turn back time, wish certain aspects of life had gone differently — or ponder “what might have been”.
While re-reading palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware’s I began to wonder what people most regret in middle age — supposedly when they still have time to do something about it.
So I carried out a survey…
Over the next month I surveyed clients and friends — anyone I bumped into — aged 35–60 years: around 50 people. There were no control groups and no rules — just a single question:
I expected the usual: not spending enough time with loved ones, taking the wrong career path, regrets about money (spending it unwisely or not saving it), regrets around use of time, hurting others or behaving badly.
I got some of that. But I was surprised by the number of big, thorny regrets that that had clung to people, in some cases shaped their lives and could still make them cry — and huge doses of self-blame.
Here’s what they said.
The Top 8 Regrets of Middle Age
1. Not doing the “right” thing when someone died.
Regrets related to death cut the deepest. They included not being there for someone close to them when they died; not being able to prevent a friend’s suicide, having a fight with dad just before he died in a car crash.
Several people wished they’d tried harder to improve or “fix” a relationship while they still had a chance. Or spent more time with someone they loved. Those regrets stayed close to the surface, were still upsetting. It had made them more conscious of their close relationships, of nurturing those that mattered.
2. Spending too much time worrying and being afraid.
People regretted hiding from their feelings (or burying them), not speaking up for their own needs and desires, trying too hard to please others — or backing away from opportunities they could have taken. Fear, or a “lack of confidence”, had led to regret around things they had NOT done, like taking risks, trying different things, dating more people, pursuing less popular career paths and traveling.
3. Not having enough adventure (staying in the comfort zone).
Clinging to security; playing it “safe”. Taking few risks with their lives and now feeling the weight of responsibility — kids, partners, mortgages, paging parents, debt, work pressure — that it was too late.
4. Staying too long in a bad situation (work/relationships).
Over-staying in a job they hated or were bored with, or clinging to an unsatisfactory (even toxic) relationship was common. So was loving the wrong person — and then having their heart broken by them.
5. Not being smarter with money.
This was almost everyone, in some way or another. Even those who seemed to have plenty had regrets about how they’d used it — or purchases they should have made, like property. Perhaps evidence that, beyond personal grief, money worries us the most.
6. Not getting more education (or choosing the wrong path).
Wishing they’d had the determination to study more or the courage to do what was in their heart. In all cases this was because they didn’t like the path they were on now — but didn’t know how (or felt it was too risky) to change it.
7. Lost opportunities.
These regrets were often pegged to things beyond their control. Like being unable to have a child. Not finding a loving life partner. Being rejected by the person they loved. Or throwing away a great relationship. Several expressed their regret in marrying/having a family too young and not fulfilling their work/career aspirations.
8. Doing stupid or mean things.
Hurting others (lovers, friends and parents), abuse of alcohol and drugs, too much sex with the wrong people. One person admitted being a bully. Others referred to being too self-focused. Or dumb. Or naive. Or inexperienced. Or avoidant. Or unable to apologise. Things that can still make us cringe. Things we should all be better at in middle age. But are not always.
What’s Your Greatest Regret?
Regret can be useful. It makes us aware of the mistakes we’ve made; the not-so-great ways we’ve treated others or ourselves. And, if we allow it, it can help guide our future choices.
But it can also keep our focus on things we’ve “failed” to do, rather than all that we have done — and could still do. While the past informs who we are, it’s not possible to live fully while looking over our shoulders.
What’s your greatest regret?
If it can’t be changed, maybe it’s time to loosen your grip on it. And, if it can, what are you waiting for?