A few months ago when I read the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I had no idea that it would include a sentiment that was so wise that I would be inspired to share it. The main character in the book is struggling with a decision that will impact her for the rest of her life. “Choose the regret you can most live with” is the powerful advice she receives.
Those of you who have been in the office recently may have heard me quote this. In the often gut wrenching world of making tough decisions, this one simple line offers good counsel as often there is no easy, clear resolution.
As much as I valued this sentiment, I was having trouble writing about it in a way that seemed as if it would have meaning. I took a couple of shots from different angles and then moved it to the folder of unfinished blogs.
Then of course, the answer came.
Many of you know about my border collie who has been with me since he was seven weeks old. I have written about him in this blog. At thirteen years old, his legs and back were plagued with arthritis. Regardless of all the medication and even massage (yes, there really is doggy massage) , his condition deteriorated daily. The reality that I would soon be facing a tough decision began to sink in. The hardest part of that decision was -When do I intervene?
Daily my concerns about “when” escalated. I was torn. There were moments when he could still show off and act like a puppy but then in the night he would wake up in pain that was becoming increasingly resistant to pain medication.
Which regret could I most live with? I was feeling grief and anxiety daily, but when I thought about ending his life, I could not fathom how I would feel.
It occurs to me that this is true about many decisions; we know clearly how we feel about one option but the other seems to elude us. The other choice is strange; unexplored and thus terrifying. We choose between giving up the known for the unknown. Our choice is often influenced by our fear of regret. A person in an unhappy marriage knows that she feels miserable but when she considers divorce, she has no idea about what she will feel like if she ends her marriage. Or the person in a dead-end job can simply feel overwhelmed by beginning the search for something better. We face hard decisions all the time: medical, financial, legal, relational, professional and even geographical. People struggling with addiction know all too well the feeling of regret that comes from making an unhealthy choice.
Perhaps instead of trying to avoid regrets, we can more forward more easily by accepting some sense of regret is part of every decision we will make.
Back to my decision; I played the line “choose the regret you can most live with” over and over. When I accepted I will have regret either way it became clearer as to how to move forward. I considered, who would benefit by delaying my choice? At first glance, it seems I benefit, but in reality I do not. Guilt and anxiety would have continued to plague me. Choosing to do nothing was merely saying I would rather be miserable (and ignore his misery) than face the unknown. It became clear. I picked up the phone and called the vet’s office to set the date. As it turned out, I was on the right track because a week later I called back to move up the date.
Unfortunately, it can often take years before we know our choice was the right one. In this case, I knew almost instantly. I felt a calmness in spite of my tears that brought me peace. My decision also brought my dog peace. Anxiety and guilt morphed into calm and sadness within a few hours after leaving the vet’s office. Then I knew for certain, I had chosen the regret I could most live with.
Sometimes though, the choice doesn’t turn out as we hoped and we beat ourselves up for the “road not taken”. Now, the unknown takes on new meaning! Prior to the decision, fear holds us back as we imagine all catastrophic-like scenarios. Paradoxically, after a choice is made, we may do just the exact opposite with that discarded option; idealize it to perfection! We have all heard(or felt) that; It begins with a wistful “if only” and is followed by one of these; “I took that job, got sober sooner, married that guy, moved to that town, went to that college, saw the doctor sooner, said yes, said no( and so on)” my life would be so much better. Isn’t that strange-prior to the decision we only see catastrophe in the unknown and after our decision, the unknown option is elevated to a utopian scenario?
We need to make peace with all our decisions. It helps us to recognize that we only punish ourselves when we distort with either fear or idealization. Regret is hard enough and exists without our making it worse. Do the best you can and then accept, in spite of all your efforts, some things are simply not going to turn out exactly as you hoped.
© 2015 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986.She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback.