How can I overcome my debilitating fear of regret?
May 16, 2009 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I have to make a hard, life-altering decision that I've been debating on for a year. I am having a hard time doing so due to past issues that resulted from me not thinking through these things first.

I have the option to pursue two things that are incredibly important to me. Let’s call them Path A and B.

Option 1 is an attempt at Path A. It does -not- guarantee it, and while Path B is still possible it will be a lot more work. I would still attempt it, though. It is also -much- more financially taxing than Option 2.

Option 2 is a guaranteed Path B, but Path A becomes so difficult that I would not even attempt it, and even if I did it would likely be a poor experience.

Doing one now and the other later is too complicated, and I would like to make the decision with the thought of "no going back," because otherwise those fears/what ifs will persist no matter what I choose.

I apologize for being vague. I need to make the decision on my own, and inviting other people’s views into it will likely make things worse.

I’ve been so torn over this that it’s causing me anxiety, sleeplessness, crying, nausea and other reactions that are starting to make me irritated with myself. It shouldn’t be this hard.

I made most of my decisions up until this point without thinking about the larger scope of things, and because of this I have many regrets. I’ve become so fearful of repeating the same mistakes that it’s paralyzing to me. I am so incredibly afraid of looking back in twenty years and going, “Damn, I should have chosen Option 1/Option 2.”

I believe that my fears are unfounded, because my past regrets are due to not being aware of how much my choices were setting me up for an, erm, unfortunate future. (Let’s just say I messed up a -lot-.) I’m an adaptable person and I know that if I consciously try to make the best of things, I should end up a happy person no matter where life takes me.

Yeah… that’s what the rational part of me thinks. But the emotional side of me is still going, “Oh no, what do I do, what if I choose the wrong thing?!”

How do I make a decision without all this anxiety behind it? How do I -not- worry so much about regrets and focus on making the best of whatever choice I make?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You need to not regret. Any decision you make should not be regretted. What good does regret do? You can't go back and change it.

All of your life experiences reward you with knowledge. You "know better now".

Instead of looking back, look forward.
posted by royalsong at 9:03 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would tend to choose the path that leaves both open in most circumstances (your option 1). However, this is dependent on whether "financially taxing" means "there is a significant chance of incurring crippling debt that haunts me for decades" or "I will have to make a lot of sacrifices, but it's manageable." If "more financially taxing" would mean the difference between these two (as opposed to the difference between comfortable and strapped or between well-off and comfortable), I'd personally take option 2, because the stress of being broke and in debt is worse than the stress of wondering what might have been. This is further dependent on whether these paths are related to your future income-generating capability; if something is financially taxing but leaves you more options or more income-generating capacity in future, it can still be worthwhile - there's a way *out* of the debt built in to the plan.

So, option 1, unless that option is going to mean financial ruin.
posted by Cricket at 9:07 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I picked Option 2. I kicked myself for doing so, and felt about ten years intermittently feeling bad about it. I decided I was resigned to Option 2, that I wasn't particularly happy with it, but that it was OK. Ten years later, Option 1 suddenly opened up again, and I said, "well, fuck, I already let this opportunity go -- but path B didn't pan out, and what have I got to lose?" And it turns out that Path A was just fine, and always was.

If you're looking for ways to not stress out about this, I recommend not making it an all-or nothing decision. Plan for two years ahead. If it doesn't work out, do something different.
posted by puckish at 9:08 PM on May 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I’m an adaptable person and I know that if I consciously try to make the best of things, I should end up a happy person no matter where life takes me.

I would do your best to reinforce this positive mindset & remember that there in many life situations there is no "wrong" decision, just different consequences. Be careful of trying to predict these too thoroughly. Anyway, the best guide you have to these kinds of decisions is your values and principles. It's hard to give specific advice because your post is quite vague, but I'm guessing this is some kind of choice about employment and/or studying?

Also -

I need to make the decision on my own, and inviting other people’s views into it will likely make things worse

... I think depending on your personality type, gathering as many different perspectives on an issue as possible, and then using them to inform your own perspective, is a wise way to go about it. Isn't that what everyone uses AskMeFi for?

Good luck in making your decision.
posted by Weng at 9:08 PM on May 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

As cricket points out, this is all assuming there's no crippling debt involved.
posted by puckish at 9:09 PM on May 16, 2009

Sorry, I missed the point, didn't I? Either way, it's hard to not wonder what might have been, but don't let the one you didn't choose become more important to you than what you're actually doing. And it sounds like there's really not a wrong choice for you here.
posted by Cricket at 9:10 PM on May 16, 2009

Eh, go with path A. If you did, you can say to yourself "Well, I tried it and it didn't work" whereas on the other hand if you pick path B you'll always be like "oh, if only I'd tried path B!"
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on May 16, 2009

Here is a decision making technique that might help. It works best if you have a friend who is good at listening so you have to speak your thoughts out loud.
1. set up two chairs, one for option A, one for option B (plus one for friend)
2. how long will it take for you to know how your choice worked out (1 year, 5 years?)
3. sit in the chair for option A, pretend it is the future and describe to your friend what is life is like now that you have picked A. Don't say "I don't know" - just go with what your gut instinct tells you and tell the story of how your life is turning out (good and bad)
4. now, sit in the chair for option B. pretend it is the future and describe to your friend what is life is like now that you have picked B. Now tell the story of how your life as turned out in Option B.
5. then sit with your friend and talk about what it was like and what your friend observed about you as you talked.

Once you do make the decision, remind yourself whenever you have doubts that
- you made the decision for good reasons,
- it was the best decision that you could have made with the information that you had
- you are going to spend your life looking forward and not looking back
and then do it.
posted by metahawk at 9:26 PM on May 16, 2009 [19 favorites]

Where do you see yourself being most content, happiest, at peace? I say go for A: there aren't any guarantees in this life, so you might as well aim big.

Just remember you have the rest of your life ahead of you...don't forget to keep your eyes open for paths C, D, E F and G as they come along.
posted by aquafortis at 9:27 PM on May 16, 2009

I hate to say it, but could you be a little less vague on A versus B? I cannot imagine/conceive what kind of goals you are talking about here worth a damn and I've reread it a bunch. I don't know what the costs or difficulties are beyond "uh, really hard and really broke or something."

Without any real clue as to what you are talking about, or how crippling or hard it is, I'd have to agree with cricket on option 1 unless it utterly ruins you. metahawk's suggestion sounds cool to try as well. But I have the impression that A is your preference if forced to choose, except you are trying to talk yourself out of it because the price might be too high. Is that really what the dilemma is?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:58 PM on May 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

The very fact you are asking this question tells me you are not prepared to make a decision and live with it. Hindsight is always 20-20. Spending the rest of your life with the Coulda, woulda, shoulda's will make you a miserable person. The only thing I would do if I were you is write out my reasons for A and for B and the reasons why not A and why not B. Then I would pick one. If you think it out, no matter the outcome, you can take solace in knowing you made a rational informed decision. Second guessing should only come from lack of effort, not failed effort.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:30 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, especially after messing up a lot, it is very wise to decide for safety. If I'm guessing correctly, you already took to much risk in the past, and some safety would bring you the much needed peace of mind. My life has improved a lot when I decided that there really was no need to become the world's most famous novelist.
posted by dhoe at 11:15 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Studies show* that the decisions people regret the most are those they can change easily. If you're worried about regret, choose the option that closes off other options. That seems to be Option 2 in this case. (Note that this only seems to be true if you're genuinely free to choose one or the other - if you're forced into Option 2, your regret could actually be more intense.)

Alternatively, look at it like an economist. What are the costs and benefits of choosing Option 1? What are the costs and benefits of choosing Option 2? Which has the greatest benefit ratio? Do that one. This is tricky, because your expectations about costs are likely to be higher than they really will be (ie, you'll think some bad aspect is much worse than it actually is) and play up the benefits (and so probably be disappointed).

Last time I said this (I think it was in a thread on happiness and buying a car) some numpty started the hysterical handwaving and 'citation required' crap. If anybody cares that much about it, Google it yourself.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:40 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Life is like money... you can spend a single dollar once. (Opportunity cost is the concept.)

Whether you make the "right decision" depends entirely on a post decision analysis done years later and in light of perfect knowledge of what you subsequently encountered. You can't get that in advance, by definition.

So.. regret will essentially be a future choice. Choose not to. It's a waste, anyway.

Worth considering is that you'll be dead soon and forgotten. (I don't mean to be flippant, just to emphasize your mortality and insignificance in the grand picture.)

Also, it's not like this theme is not considered in say... most of human art and literature. It should take all of 10 minutes to locate a few dozen movies, books, biographies, poems, epitaphs, songs awash with the confrontation of mutually exclusive choice. Metafilter is handy for getting the opinions of moderns, of course, but is extremely late to the game.

The magic is not in the decision. It's in the post decision action and how you greet the results.

You say option B completely cuts off going back and pursuring option A, and maybe that is true for you, but it may not be generally true.

Doors are seldom completely closed, and if they are, there's usually a window you can crawl through or a wall to be busted down. The history of modern invention is full of folks who confronted the 'impossible' and kicked its stubborn ass. I don't buy it. There is almost always an option. Some folks just get thwarted by hard work and lack creativity. Is that you? (I hope not!)
posted by FauxScot at 3:30 AM on May 17, 2009

My first reaction is that there are way more options in your life than A or B, those are just the two you are fixated on. Either one you choose, more options will always open up for you in the future.

I'd also note that you see the choices as absolute (A IS like this, B IS like this), but those assessments are in you, not objective to the choices. It may be that the guaranteed path won't work, or the crippling path won't cripple, or that some new choice will turn up that makes them both look horrible in comparison.

Right now you are already in a choice. The choice to be in a place torn between your views of A or B.

I encourage a few steps:
1> Ask yourself why you are in the choice of being in so much pain about making the decision (which I think you are doing in this post).
2> Think about the what is the worst that can happen in each choice. Consider what it would be like. Then notice that you are still breathing, that life would go on, that even if you end up there you could make new choices to take your life in another direction.
3> Think about what is the ideal that will happen in each choice. What is more fulfilling to you?

Take the choice that is more fulfilling.
posted by meinvt at 7:00 AM on May 17, 2009

It looks like people can only help you manage your regret because of the way you have described the options. So any advice not to regret your decision and look forward will sound a little abstract and hollow and any advice about how awesome either choice could be (which would help manage regret in a more meaningful concrete way) is impossible without knowing particulars. Also the outright focus on regret starts the conversation on a negative footing. You might get more out of this if you gave us some more particulars, even as a thought exercise it might be worth rewording the two options wholly in terms of benefits rather than liabilities to imagine the comparison from a different perspective.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:17 AM on May 17, 2009

follow-up from the OP
Cricket: While Option 1 would cost more in the long run, I mentioned the cost because if neither plan works out and I've chosen Option 1, that could lead to huge regret.

Jenfullmoon: In hindsight, maybe it wouldn't have hurt to post the exact situation. I feel silly that it is even an issue for me. To give you a bigger picture:

Option 2: "You know all that stuff you were supposed to do but didn't? We're going to give you another chance to do that. It'll cost more and you'll have to work harder, but we're going to make it easy for you. Oh, and don't try Plan A. It isn't going to work and you won't enjoy Plan B."

Option 1: "We don't have enough resources for you to fully embrace Plan B, but you can try to make it work for you. We can't guarantee that Plan A will work for you either, but you will at least have the chance to try."

You are right that 1 is my preference, but it is only due to Plan A. If Plan A wasn't a factor I would choose Option 2 in a heartbeat. I didn't post the exact situation because everyone who knows it and did not choose Plan B has regretted it. Plan B becomes unavailable past a certain age, so these people are mostly 20+ years older than me. Instead of helping me decide, it's heightened my fear that I'll end up kicking myself in the future and made me wonder if I really need to fully embrace Plan B or if I am only considering it out of fear/regret.

dhoe: I have the opposite problem. I passed on certain things I thought were "optional," only to find out that I really handicapped myself by doing so. Oops!

Everyone else: Thank you so much for the suggestions. (Feel free to keep 'em comin'!) I am going to sit down and do all of them tomorrow.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on May 17, 2009

What do you WANT to do? If you want to do it badly enough, I don't care how high the failure rate is, the fact that you want it badly enough (and are willing to move mountains to accomplish what you want) will boost your chances of success. Choose Option 1 if that's what you want. And make sure you really want it, is my advice, and I wouldn't give a flip about the people who regretted it.

Also wanted to pass on this line from Hafiz, a Sufi poet:

"Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living in better conditions."

Don't make fear-based decisions. They seldom work out.
posted by Dukat at 8:14 AM on May 17, 2009

I'm confused by the vagueness. But the only way to make these sorts of decisions is to ask yourself a few questions:

1- Emotionally, which option do I want to take?
2- Do my emotions reflect the reality of the success or failure of these choices? Or am I mixing up "what I hope will happen" with "what probably will happen"?
3- Gather all the information you can about your choices and do a weighted pro/con list.
4- Play out the decisions- imagine what the consequences will be.
5- What are the outside factors? If you are making a decision that could result in a dead-end through no fault of your own, that is a very risky decision. But if the success of the path that you choose is simply how hard you work at it, understand and be comfortable with that. Know that you are making a decision that you will be stuck with, that will cause you to have to work hard, maybe even harder than you thought.
6- Remove emotion from it completely. Which option becomes the best option after you remove all good/bad feelings you have for either one?

The only time to have regret for a decision is if you didn't make the decision well. If you knew at the time that you were making the wrong decision, but you made it anyway, that's a reason for regret. But if you made a decision knowing everything you could possibly know at the time and made the best decision you could have with the information at hand, there is no need for regret.
posted by gjc at 8:50 AM on May 17, 2009

Flip a coin and see how you feel about the result.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:54 AM on May 17, 2009

One of the best pieces of advice that I got when I was trying to make a similar big decision that would take my life on one of two different paths, was you have to let yourself mourn the road not taken. In a case like this where there are good things or interesting things about both options, you give up something with either choice that you make. It helps to be aware of that and to not feel like you have to be 100% happy about whichever one you choose.
posted by MsMolly at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2009

1) Decision-making like this is about trying to predict the future. This is impossible, so it turns into trying to accurately assess the probabilities of various outcomes. This is practically impossible. Large decisions like this are made based on emotion and gut feelings, then they are rationalized like crazy after the fact. Embrace this. Understand that there is only so much you can do.

You say your "past regrets are due to not being aware..." So it goes. You make a decision based on the information you have. If you are having difficulty deciding, then you, almost by definition, do not have enough information to say which choice is better, and no one else does either. You beat yourself up about it because we are given this idea that smart, successful people are in control of their lives and confident about where they are taking things. Nope. Everyone else is or has been in the same boat as you.

2) Fear and risk. Dukat is aboslutely right. Fear and avoiding risk can be hugely detrimental. However, dhoe is also right. Risk-taking can be hugely detrimental. Which has been the case for you? If this instance is similar to past cases for you, inform it based on their outcomes.

Personally, I can look back and see time after time where comfortably avoiding risk caused problems and taking risks led to huge rewards. I see I am too risk-averse, so I work to push myself in the other direction. For someone who has been burned time and again by taking risks, I'd advise the opposite. Start from your gut feeling and adjust it based on how it has worked for you in the past.

[Okay, now I'm regretting a huge decision I recently made based on avoiding risk. Oops. But A) second-guessing will get me absolutely nowhere, and B) things are still damn good. Onward.]
posted by whatnotever at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2009

I would weight the choice based on
1. Does it move you ion the direction of your dreams/goals?
2. What will you learn?
3. If it fails, how screwed would you be?

Research each choice really well. If it turns out that they are both really good choices, consider yourself lucky. I find that my dreams can be quite useful in determining what I really want and what I really fear. If you have strong dreams, discuss them with a friend.
posted by theora55 at 9:39 AM on May 17, 2009

Seconding bonobo the great: assign plan A to heads, and plan B to tails. Convince yourself that the coin flip will matter. Flip the coin. Do you feel a sudden secret pulse of happiness? Or a sinking feeling?

Seriously. It's amazing how much you can learn about your own preferences just by PRETENDING to make the decision.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:52 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

A life lived with regret is one half lived. Focus on removing the regret from your life, choose whatever seems like the best option based on the facts you have, and don't spend your life thinking "what if?" even if things don't go so great.

There is *nothing* you can do to change the past. You only get now and what's next.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:22 AM on May 17, 2009

Yet another decision making technique (similar to the coin flip, but longer term for extra clarity): pretend you have decided on option one. Live with your decision for three days. Don't think about it constantly, just get on with your life thinking occasionally about how you you feel about how you HAVE SELECTED option one. At the end of the three days, switch options - live the next three days as if you have selected option two as the way forward. At the end of the six days, which option felt most natural?

Good luck!
posted by jzed at 2:50 AM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I recently had to choose between two options and freaked myself out in the same way... lots of hyperventilating... I chose what I think was the less good option. Now, understanding the motivations behind my choice, I realized that I was using other peoples' priorities to make the choice, and letting my feelings get in the way. There was a point when I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I forgot that when I started to talk to other people. I wish I had made a list of all of the good and bad things, considered the challenges and whether I could and wanted to meet them, and considered the kind of person I would be at the end of it. I might have objectively taken into account the kind of person I am, since my priorities and character are not those of the people around me. It turns out that I knew intellectually what was best even if it was hard to give that priority over the crazy emotions.

After I made the choice I spent a lot of time crying and realized weeks later that it wasn't some big thing of destiny that had gotten in the way, but just the fact that I really wanted to do that thing. Sometimes it's that simple.

Practically, I ask myself what I need to do to be comfortable with the uncertainty of a decision, and now I also ask myself if I am letting someone else's fear or need get in the way. What are your priorities? And have you recognized personal changes that might make your priorities something other than they used to be?

I would pick Option 1. And hey remember that these are both "things that are incredibly important" to you. What an amazing privilege. I bet that years from now you will appreciate the wonderful dilemma of having two ideal choices before you, even if it sucks now. Looking at the future as two beautiful bright roads rather than a dark tunnel of unknowing might help stave off regret.
posted by ramenopres at 11:49 PM on May 23, 2009

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