Can understanding regret shape better decision-making?

I was shocked one summer when my neighbor Bill* suddenly came to me to ask me to return to my babysitting job that I had held with them for 4 previous summers because his wife Natalie* had cancer.

While considering the decision, I felt selfish for not wanting to give up the ideal summer job that suited my introverted ways (on my own most of the day, a company car, a stack of CDs, mostly open road). On the other hand, I came to realize that this was a family that I had grown to love.

If I said no to them, I knew I would always regret it. The reasons to say no were so small – I liked my job, it was easy. And the reasons to say yes were so big – they needed me and I could help.

So, I started taking care of the kids while Natalie started treatment. She was sometimes sad. She was sometimes happy. We became closer friends and I became even closer to their boys. It was a hard summer job. I loved them. They needed me and I could help.

In the fall, I went back to school. I kept in touch and saw them when I came back home for Christmas, her health was worse. In the spring she passed away and we went to the funeral. Bill was holding their eldest as he entered into the silent church, packed full of people.

That was the last time I saw them.

I kept making excuses not to visit. My parents encouraged me to go see them but I didn’t. I thought it would make me sad to see them and I was scared of this sadness. It was selfish of me to give into hiding from my feelings and not see them.

They still needed me but I could not find it within myself to be the person that they needed – an interim mom. It was too much of a title for me to handle. I gradually broke away from them, somehow convincing myself that each time I didn’t go that it was the right decision.

I am embarrassed about this now and it makes me feel small. I wish I could have been a bigger person. They needed me and I could help, but this time I let them down.

I learned that sometimes the decisions that we make are obvious and we know we won’t regret it. Other times, the decisions are more gradual and we don’t know how much we will regret it, until it feels like it’s too late.

This was a hard lesson to learn but it helped me discover a simple but powerful tool in decision-making. When faced with a decision, big or small, we can ask ourselves: will you regret it if you don’t do this? We are often faced with decisions where we don’t really want to do something but when asked this question, it becomes clear that we should. Often times, the hardest actions are those that, if we don’t do them, we would regret the most.

Saying yes to taking care of those kids that summer will be something I never regret and not staying connected to them will be something I always will.

How have you grown from your regrets? 

* names changed

Sidenote: I wrote this first as a toastmaster speech. I shortened it for the blog (you’re welcome). It was inspired by Brene Brown’s talk on Vulnerability which led me to the question: when am I most vulnerable? And, it was also inspired by a fellow toastmaster who encouraged me to give a more emotional speech (since, ya know, I tend to be a bit analytical). Shout outs to both!

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