Learning to Reframe Regret in Later Life

Last week I traveled to San Francisco to present two research posters at the American Psychological Association’s National Conference and found myself attending a panel with famed existential psychologist Dr. Irvin Yalom. A preeminent scholar-practitioner of the 21st century, Dr. Yalom wrote several New York Times best-selling books, including the seminal text for group psychotherapy, and most recently, his memoir. 

I’ve had the privilege of hearing Dr. Yalom speak at several conferences over the years but this was qualitatively different; he is now 87. He discussed his life and famed career from the mountaintop – looking out over his many accomplishments. Yet, the most emotionally stirring part of his talk was his disclosure that despite his successes across the lifespan, he still had unfinished emotional business from his past. Recalling a recent experience with a client’s childhood trauma, Dr. Yalom found himself staring at pictures of his own childhood home in the background; his family-of-origin in the fore.  Out of nowhere, he reported, tears began to flow. Dr. Yalom asked himself, “where are these tears coming from?” 

Sitting in the audience I found myself considering the older adults I work with at Always Best Care Southbay throughout Los Angeles and the tears that frequently flow from the reservoir of regret.

Regret in Seniors

Regret is a natural part of the human experience and may become more compounded with the passage of time. It’s an emotional/cognitive state that includes blaming ourselves for an undesired outcome or feeling a sense of loss or sorrow for what might have been. Regret is coming to terms with a possible self that we may have lost along the way and wondering if the person we are is our best version. Several studies on the topic of regret have found significant associations between regret, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation (King & Hicks, 2007; Morrison et al., 2012).  There are a number of factors that exacerbate regret, including contextual circumstances, personality structures, and psychological mediators – rumination being the most prevalent. Individuals who ruminate – the compulsive mulling over and deliberation of choice – are much more likely to experience negative psychological consequences.   

The Harvard Study of Adult Development (Vaillant, 2003) is one of the longest studies on aging ever conducted in the United States. Investigators have observed a cohort of men for nearly 80 years.  This longitudinal study has identified several factors that promote longevity with limited disability. The third most important factor, believe it or not, is how we cope. Dr. Vaillant described coping as the individual’s vital reaction to change over time. How we respond to stressful situations, including regret throughout the lifespan, matters. Coming to terms with regret can be a critical component of healthy aging.

Dr. David Hart, Ph.D. & Developing Compassion

So how does one cope with regret? When working with clients at Always Best Care in mid and later life, I often find our work revolves around developing compassion for the person who made the decision in that earlier time and place. Often these youthful choices were situated in the context of the circumstances. Access to resources, emotional support, and environmental stressors are all considered as we tease apart the decision making process.  Frequently, my clients and I are able to find perspective on earlier choices: that they didn’t necessarily happen in a vacuum. Developing this new perspective goes a long way towards forgiveness of self and others. Forgiveness can lead to acceptance that the changes we wish to see in ourselves can only happen in the here-and-now.  As my grandmother frequently proclaimed, “there’s little use in crying over spilt milk.”

Older adults report that age has crystalized their values, a privilege that may not have been readily available in youth. Aligning their values with their current decision-making process is also an effective strategy to mitigate regret. One study found that purposeful activities and embracing meaningful goals are also helpful approaches in later life (Heintzelman & King, 2014). I have found that a values sort is a useful tool to crystalize the who, what, and how that are important to us. Once you prioritize what’s most meaningful to you, your next step is to develop a concrete plan to strategically and consistently implement your values in daily life. Acting in a way that is aligned with your values is a surefire path to living as your best possible self. You may find regrets begin to take up less oxygen in your inner and outer worlds.

Motivation and Confidence: Healthy Aging

If you are in fact interested in changing how you think, feel, and live, I invite you to consider the basic tenets of behavior change: motivation and confidence. You might ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how motivated and confident are you to alleviate feelings of regret in your life? If you rate yourself at a 5, ask the question: why not a 4 (you may do this exercise for any rating). The answer will give you specific motivating factors that you may employ in your work to manage and even alleviate life’s regrets. Of course, if you find that you need support in this endeavor you can talk to your healthcare professional to identify potential options, including counseling and psychological support.

I leave you with this final thought. If the source of your tears is from the reservoir of regret, it may be a perfect time to tap into your inner beaver and adopt some new strategies to build yourself a damn. You may find yourself in a whole new emotional ecosystem.

To learn more about reframing regret later in life and the services offered by Always Best Care Southbay, please contact Dr. Hart at  or by phone at (310) 792-8666.

Posted In: Senior Care