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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. 

13 Comments

  1. chip mues on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

    Donna,
    What excellent advice and perspective! With your permission, I would like to Repost it on the Ohio Family Law Blog. Making certain life changing decisions is extremely difficult. Once made, permitting yourself peace is all important to be able to move forward.
    Thanks for sharing this deeply personal article With all your readers!
    Regards
    Chip

    • Donna Ferber on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

      Absolutely, Chip. Please feel free to repost it. Thanks!

  2. Sue on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

    I am so sorry for your loss. My heart breaks for you. It was my extraordinary blessing to be mamma to my 2 border collies for almost 15 years. This bread is amazing, but you already know that. I also had to make two very difficult decisions this year. A month after I had to make the painful choice to put my female border collie down I then was faced with the same decision for my beloved male border collie who was my rock and best buddy through this past year of going through a divorce at the request of my husband of 30 years. These decisions would be more than I could bear if I didn’t have my Higher Power and a belief that all my choices, good and bad, have brought me to precisely where I need to be in this journey called life. I’m working at being kind to myself instead of beating myself with the hammer of regret. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom.

    • Donna Ferber on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

      Thank you for sharing.”The hammer of regret” says it all.

  3. cj golden on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

    How powerful are your words, especially your final paragraph: We need to make peace with all our decisions. … 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. I truly believe that all turns out – not necessarily as we had hoped, but as it should be. Understanding this help me make peace with my decisions and live with the regret I have chosen.

  4. Dawn S on the 31. May, 2015 remarked #

    Oh Donna – what a great blog! It’s been awhile since I spoke with you but I remember talking with you about Joey. So sorry for your loss – but you have given me insight with this posting. Regrets indeed haunt me – this gives me comfort. Thanks.

    • Donna Ferber on the 01. Jun, 2015 remarked #

      Comfort….it is what we can offer each other in difficult times.

  5. Annie T on the 01. Jun, 2015 remarked #

    I am so sorry to hear about Joey. Joey is up there over the rainbow bridge, playing with my Harley.

    Thank you so much for your blogs. I still read them, always. I love this phrase.
    “We need to make peace with our decisions” No truer words have been sad. I believe we all make our decisions based on the information we currently have at that time. I know I have not made the best decisions all the time, heck, I still do not! I try not to look at them as “regret” That word is just so heavy for me. I refer to them as “lessons”, see what I can learn from the decisions I have made. I won’t be the person I am today without them.

    • Donna Ferber on the 01. Jun, 2015 remarked #

      Thanks you, Annie for your wise and caring words. I agree- all regrets are lessons!The challenge is to remember that in moments of crisis.

    • Sandy on the 14. Jun, 2015 remarked #

      Annie……..trying to get in touch with you. If you receive this email, let me know.
      Sandy (from yoga class)

  6. Alan on the 01. Jun, 2015 remarked #

    Donna’s advice and timing is so perfect, I wondering if she is watching me live my life. Thank you.

  7. Nancy C on the 02. Jun, 2015 remarked #

    I’m so very sorry Donna for your loss. Your dog was so lucky to have you for so long, what a difference you made for him. I enjoyed your blog and perspective more than ever.

  8. Dawn on the 02. Jun, 2015 remarked #

    So sorry to hear about Joey. Thought you might enjoy this video of another amazing border collie. Be sure to put on your speakers. I’m sure it will remind you of all the special things Joey used to do for you. Aren’t our animals amazing?

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