“[A major] theme in emerging adult culture [18-23 year olds] is that they very much want to profess to have no regrets about their lives. Despite often hurting from hard lessons learned, most of the emerging adults we interviewed initially denied feeling any regrets about any of their past decisions, behaviors, or problems, at least explicitly so. In keeping with their widespread optimism about the future, most who we spoke with, including those with serious problems, insisted that the past was the past, that they had learned their lessons, that they would not change a thing they had done even if they could, that what’s happened is part of who they have become, and that they have no regrets about anything at all.
In reality, many emerging adults appeared to us to harbor regrets about the past and sometimes expressed them–as we will see below–even as they often denied that they were doing so. Most emerging adults simply do not want to see themselves as having regrets, even though they also get angry with themselves about mistakes and continue sometimes to be haunted by problems from the past. So, for example, after a lengthy explanation by one girl about how she invested so much into advancing her boyfriend’s career that she herself never finished more than one semester of college, she concluded, ‘I put aside my dreams to try and help him follow his, for him to become a cop, but I feel like if I was just a little more selfish, I could have advanced myself a little bit more It’s a lesson learned. I don’t really regret it at all.’ Likewise, addressing whether quitting drugs had an impact on his life, one guy said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, I’m so much more clear-minded. Now that I’m where I am it kinda makes me see it was bringing me down, even though I don’t regret it, I don’t really regret it at all. I think everything that you do makes you who you are, so I don’t really regret it.’
Their thoughts and feelings on this matter, however, are inconsistent. It appears to us that overtly admitting regrets would somehow be capitulating to a self-doubt or compromise or nascent discouragement against which they are holding out at all costs through the power of positive thinking. It seems as if many of these emerging adults are too young to name and own their own unalterable disappointments with life by admitting regrets. Instead, saying ‘no regrets’ puts a good face on matters that are in fact obviously problematic, optimistically reframes the difficulties of the past, and keeps all of life’s concerns moving forward in a positive, constructive direction. Denying regrets also appears to protect a sense of personal self–which, in a world in which the self is central, seems sacred to emerging adults–against threats to the ultimate good of ‘being yourself.’ That is because actually expressing regrets suggests that the self that one has become embodies something that is wrong or unwanted. When one’s life is essentially about ‘being who I am,’ one must try to negate the existence of genuinely regrettable choices and experiences, since even the worst and hardest have contributed to making oneself who one is. The very idea of regrets also presupposes a clear view of good and bad, right and wrong by which to judge past decisions, which many emerging adults lack.” (Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 151-52)