Do you have regrets?
Valentine’s Day, which we just passed, usually refers to the spark of getting or being in love. For those in that state of mind, it was more likely than not to be a happy day. However, for love lost or missed, regret is more likely.
Once upon a time, someone asked if I had any regrets. Regrets generally refer to disappointment about something that has happened or been done, especially a lost opportunity that has gone beyond one’s control or power to repair. Usually, a lack of action causes more regret than misplaced action. Self-blame commonly ensues. The more important the lost opportunity, the more the regret.
My answer at the time was that I did not have any regrets. I feel like I do my very best, as flawed as that may be. However, I have come to realize that my answer was not accurate. When my mother died in 1989, as I was reminded by the anniversary of her death a week ago, I now realize that I was left with regret. After she was hospitalized once again, I visited her and asked her if she wanted me to stay home instead of flying to a conference. As expected, in her usual unselfish way, she said no. I went. She then went into a coma and died after I returned.
As I have reached an age when it is more common to lose loved ones, let alone one’s own life, I have kept that regret in mind. Consequently, there has been no delay in my wife and I to go anywhere to visit someone we are close to when their death seemed imminent or whom we have not seen in a long time. Then I felt I did what I could.
Regret can certainly arise in clinical practice, especially with resource limitations, but it seems that regret is not much discussed or researched in our field. Although we cannot usually control our system or unpredictable circumstances, we can control our own decisions, attitude, and self-care. As such, regret is likely an underrecognized challenge in our burning out epidemic at work.
Recently, in a moving column, “How Do You Serve a Friend in Despair?” which elicited many published letters to the editor in the New York Times, David Brooks reported grappling with the suicide of his oldest best friend. Although he does not use the word regret per se, it sounded like it was there1:
“I feel sorrow that I didn’t know enough to do this more effectively with Pete. I might have kept him company more soothingly. I might have made him better understand what he meant to me. But I do not feel guilt.”
Sometimes even doing our best is not enough. Yet, regret can often be prevented by asking in advance this question: is my decision one I am likely to regret? Answering in the negative, if possible, can help to be left with personal peace after a poor personal or patient outcome. Otherwise, I suspect that regret will eat away at our self-esteem.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.
1. Brooks D. How do you serve a friend in despair? The New York Times. February 9, 2023. Accessed February 16, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/09/opinion/despair-friendship-suicide.html