How Do We Let Go of Past Regrets for Things We Cannot Change?

This is the time of year when many people naturally reflect on the past year and make their resolutions for the upcoming year. There is that feeling of getting a fresh start with the new year…a Stevenson House Blog How Do We Let Go of Past Regrets for Things We Cannot Change?clean slate. Eat healthier, exercise more, manage stress, take a trip—all of these are among the top resolutions made each year.

While the New Year is a new beginning to a certain degree, it brings up an interesting question: How do we also let go of past regrets for things we cannot change? We’ve spoken with a number of elders who note this very challenge of coming to terms with things in their past and letting go of regrets. While in one’s later years this challenge can seem more profound, I think it is something people of all ages struggle with. How can we let go of our regrets?

I recently came across a great resource that provides different perspectives on avoiding regrets as well as a number of other interesting topics including values to live by, not getting bogged down by worry and stress, compassionate living, and aging well. It is called the Legacy Project and is the result of practical advice collected from over 1500 older Americans who have lived through extraordinary experiences and historical events. They offer tips on surviving and thriving despite the challenges we all encounter.

The Legacy Project began in 2004 by Dr. Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Using a number of different methods, Dr. Pillemer’s research team systematically gathered from elders responses to the question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?” Videos and entries are available on the Legacy Project website and in a recently published book on the project, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

In the “avoiding regrets” topic Paul, 71, comments that he believes we’re too hard on ourselves when it comes to regrets:

What I know now is I made some mistakes in life, I have some regrets. I think we all do. But I’ve learned as I get older. I’ve identified things that I feel as though I did wrong. I feel bad about them, but I don’t hold myself responsible at this point in time. I’m a different person now. And to know that I erred in certain ways and I feel sad about it is enough for me. The guilt is gone. 

Some seniors note that their life lessons at times come not from what they did right, but from what they felt they did wrong. They say that while they have had difficult or stressful experiences, they have learned important lessons from them and choose to focus on the lessons learned. They advise younger people not to make the same mistakes that they did.

Perhaps one way of coming to terms with regrets is to share wisdom with others about what has been learned from these life experiences with the hope of helping them avoid these same mistakes.

How do you let go of regrets?


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