Subscriber OnlyYour Wellness

If you have unshiftable regrets, just remember that we are all faulty

Accepting the discomfort of regret is an important life skill, with research suggesting older people are better at handling it

When I see an article in which a famous novelist is being interviewed and lionised, I move on with a fleeting feeling of regret.

The regret comes from the fact that I wanted to be that lionised novelist and won’t ever be. The feeling is irrational because I also wanted to be the journalist doing the interviewing and I did, actually, manage to be that. I’m pretty sure that if I had become the lionised novelist I would have regretted not having been the journalist.

Why am I telling you this?

I’m telling you this because I think the issue of regret is a strong one in many people’s lives. And the richest source of regret is (to paraphrase a line from the Confiteor) what we have failed to do.


Some regrets are fixable. If you wish you had trained to be, say, a pilot or a plumber, it may still be possible to do so.

The toughest regrets are the ones that you cannot do anything about any more, especially when they concern what you might call your “ideal” self. These regrets could concern a career you’re too late to have, relationships, a type of personality (wishing you had been an extravert and not an introvert, for instance, though personally I have no regrets about being an introvert).

These “big” regrets may loom larger in older age. In his work on life stages, the psychologist Erik Erikson saw the psychological and emotional condition of people over 65 (this was in 1950) as being one of integrity or despair.

Integrity in this case means that you’re essentially at peace and happy, perhaps feeling wise and successful in your life.

If this isn’t you, I reckon you have a lot of company.

Despair includes regret, shame and rumination. We’re all faulty human beings so there’s a lot of that about, though I wouldn’t use a word as strong as despair to describe it in most cases. Also, we are probably more positive and creative about old age than in Erikson’s day.

Still, many of us have unshiftable regrets and in facing them it’s essential to remember that we are all faulty – we had no control over our genetic inheritance and neither did our parents or anybody else. Yes, we are responsible for our choices, otherwise ethics and morality fall down. But we make those choices in a world full of contradictory demands between, for instance, work, play, self-development and caring for others, survival and risk-taking.

Research suggests that older people are better able to handle regrets than younger people. But that research concerned relatively minor issues. It seems to me that it’s the bigger issues, and the regrets about what is no longer attainable, that can push some older people into feeling a persistent sense of loss.

In dealing with these regrets it is especially important to avoid rumination. When you ruminate you go around and around in your head about the negative aspects of your life or of a relationship. This isn’t the same as planning what to do – it’s about rerunning the same old painful movies again and again.

Rumination is linked with depression and with the prolonging and deepening of depression. Often, there’s more to depression than this, but rumination makes it worse. Rumination can also deepen a sense of bitterness and of anger.

Also, rumination may tell you the lie that you actually could have done something about matters that you may not have been able to do anything about, that you could have made things happen when maybe you couldn’t have.

Accepting the discomfort of regret, as though it’s a pebble in your shoe that you can’t get rid of, is an important life skill and becomes more important the older you get.

And It enables you to do so without constantly looking over your shoulder at the shadow of what you think might have been.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (