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Why Do We Have Regrets?

By Rob Prior

February 2020 - It's a natural human feeling and something we all experience multiple times throughout our lives. Regret is something we never want to feel but it is inevitable. Albeit, some regrets are bigger than others. Small regrets, like that awful teenage haircut or choosing the wrong meal at your local restaurant can be easily brushed off and soon forgotten about.

On occasion, we experience larger regrets that can impact our lives. A Loving Tribute, makers of funeral stationery, recently surveyed over 500 UK based over 65s to find out what their biggest life regret was and what advice they would offer to their 18-year-old self. You can view the full range of their order of service templates at

A positive taken from this survey, over a third of respondents simply stated they regret looking after their mental health and positive mental attitude the most. Being a teenager can be a troublesome life period and we can all struggle at this point in our lives, so it is comforting to know many of us to hold our biggest regret as not caring for ourselves. Common phrases used were 'be true to yourself', 'believe in yourself', 'enjoy life' and 'be confident'.

Unfortunately, others did appear to have larger regrets. Over 10% regretted their career or education pathways more than any other choice in life, while over 9% regretted a relationship choice. Relationships were not just classed as romantic encounters but also family, with some respondents replying with shocking answers such as 'don't sign the adoption papers' and 'don't ever have kids'.

Over 7% of over 65s regretted not looking after their own physical health in their younger years, drink, drugs and a lack of exercise were common answers. Over 6% stated financial regrets are their biggest anguish, almost all these answers involved wishing to have saved more/gained a larger pension. Perhaps a frivolous lifestyle has finally caught up.

But why do we regret things and sometimes not have the ability to move on and see this as a life lesson learned? Regret can be classed as a negative emotion towards the past in general or a particular event, even if the positive side to this experience was impossible or highly improbable, we often experience a feeling of self-blame.

This is typically a long-lasting emotion and can plague a person for months, years and even decades. As regret is linked to the past, it is something we are unable to change and the feeling of not having control of this situation can have a negative impact on our mental health.

As humans, we struggle to be out of control of something, especially when it has negative connotations. This can lead to implications for our future self, anxiety levels can be heightened at the thought of a previous scenario being played out again and can cause a bias on our decision-making process, causing us to miss out on events or making poor choices. Regret can also lead to chronic feelings of sadness and dysphoria, guilt, shame and anger and could lead to depression.

However, regret can also be helpful to us as it gives us insight and can improve our decision-making skills. Especially as children, experiencing regret can help us to cope and learn from these experiences, preparing us for adulthood. Under the right circumstances, regret can be beneficial to our progression.

Dr. Jonathan Pointer, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist at Therapy Sanctuary states:

"If we consider that we each have multiple selves, rather than a singular self (which, for example, explains how we can argue with ourselves), then we can start to see how we can each have a construct of the self in the present (present self) and also an imagined self-set in the future (future self).

"Research has shown that our future self is experienced as separate, and to some extent 'other' to our present self, and that the more distant in time there is between these selves, the more disconnection takes place. In other words, we see our future as experienced by someone other than ourselves.

"Therefore, even though we can know that what we are doing in the present will negatively affect us in the future, we still value the benefits of something that we do in the present over the negative consequences that will emerge sometime in our future."

It is important, but also tricky to take experiences we regret and learn from them. Mistakes made for a second time can have a larger impact on mental health than the first.

Regret is natural and there is no shame in having made the wrong decision in the past as it can help us to shape who we are not and also provide advice to those who may be making the same error you previously did.

About the author

Rob Prior is the Managing Director of A Loving Tribute. A Loving Tribute is a provider of personalised funeral stationery. Their aim is to ensure your experience is as hassle-free as possible and deliver the best printing quality and pride themselves in excellent customer service.

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