My wife and I were going to visit a friend. Our route took us to a stop sign at a T-junction at an Interstate access road. We could turn left or right to get to our destination. My wife said, “Turn left.” I replied that the shorter and quicker route would be to turn right. She insisted that we should turn left, even after I reasoned with her. I was driving, so with some impatience, I went ahead and turned right. The consequence of my decision was that it caused my wife to break into tears. I knew I was right, but her reaction surprised me: I didn’t know how much turning left meant to her. She must have interpreted my action as a criticism of her.

Even though this seemingly trivial incident happened 25 years ago, the memory of it still enters my mind from time to time. And when it does, I always feel a stab of regret, because being right wasn’t worth the pain it caused my wife. She wanted me to follow her lead, and I didn’t do it.

Along with the pain of regret, I also remember the lesson: It’s not important to always be right. What’s important is the happiness of the people you love.

I use that lesson in my life now. Even when I know I’m right, if the issue has little consequence, I happily let my loved one have her way, without discussion. Such a simple thing. Such a hard-earned lesson.

Psychologists often urge us to let go of regret, that dwelling on it isn’t good for one’s mental health. The past is past. Let it go. If you made a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Learn from it and let it go.

But for me, this painful memory is a good thing, because it always reminds me of the lesson and my commitment to never make that mistake again. I don’t beat myself up over it, which would not be good for my self-esteem. Instead, I recommit to the lesson.

The last time I had this memory, it occured to me that if used this way, feelings of regret could be constructive for parents. Raising a child is the hardest and most important thing a human being can do, so mistakes kind of come with the territory. Parents who are doing the best they can make mistakes all the time.

The trick is to refuse to self-criticize. Instead, ask yourself three things:

  • Why did I do that?
  • What were the consequences?
  • How can I handle that situation better in the future?

And commit to implementing the lesson in your life.

The good thing about regret: when you recall your mistake and feel regret, you get a chance to remember an important lesson, and recommit to it.