Regrets revisited

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

James Joyce

“I don’t want you to do something you might regret”. We hear that a lot. Be it in movies, books, TV soaps or in real life. It got me thinking what’s so wrong with regrets? Aren’t they inevitable? Why is it always said “no regrets” (this phrase is so popular I found it on a t-shirt this week (hence my pic above))?

We live in a ‘control Z’ culture where we believe we’re able to undo or reverse our decisions. Add to this, the fact we seem to be making more choices in our lives and at much quicker speeds thanks to our old friend technology. Then the chances of us experiencing regret is greater than ever. 

Getting stuck

One of the immediate downsides to regret (apart from that “urgh” feeling of remorse/frustration/shame/ guilt/anxiety/powerlessness (take your pick!) is that we can sometimes get stuck in it. 

Regret can turn into obsessive rumination (when it turns over and over in your mind with no resolve or release), leading to chronic stress and sadness.  By ruminating we effectively avoid the actual pain of the regret itself. We prefer to overly focus on the regret than actually face reality. 

For example if we fail an exam, we may obsess over why we didn’t study more, as opposed to accepting our exam result and the impact it may have on our life. We become stuck in our past, mourning what we could have done (“shoulda, woulda, coulda” anyone)?

Our fear of regret can also cause us to become paralysed when making a decision. What easier way to avoid regret, than to avoid choosing a path and therefore leave all our options open and viable. Of course then we become stuck in a different way. Not in regret but stuck in decision paralysis. Stuck in our lives. Left in limbo where no paths are taken. 

A recent study by Cornell University has suggested that over time, our regrets move from ones about the actions we did take to ones about the actions we didn’t take. In the long term, we are more likely to regret, for example, not taking that art degree or not joining the school paper than the house we bought a few years ago.  This makes a fair bit of sense, given our inactions in the past cannot be as easily remedied as the actions we took more recently.

What can we do?

We need to accept that regrets are inevitable. In order for us to move forward in our lives, we have to choose certain paths, mostly never knowing where they’ll lead. But this means we don’t pick other paths, which is where regret can arise.  To be human is to regret. Key ways to cope could include:

  • Look at the issue in context. Hindsight can be so easy to beat ourselves up with. You took that certain path for a reason. You made the best decision you could have at the time. Give yourself a break.
  • If you feel you could have done something different, then keep that in mind, write it down, and if a similar situation arises in the future maybe you can repair the past regret (slightly) with a present action. 
  • Is there anything you can do to address the past? Say if you regret not going to university, could you do a course now with an adult education college? 
  • Talk your regret through with a close friend. They may have a different take or remind you of the context. Plus sharing regret stops it festering and getting control of you.
  • You’ve made some good decisions, which didn’t end in regret. Remember these as they can combat any regret we might be feeling.

I feel we need to see regrets as more positive. Having regret tells us something about the path we did take and if we pay attention, we might be able to alter our journey to address our regret.  Regret can be a useful signal to ourselves that something isn’t quite working for us and gives us a chance to make some changes. Regret should be welcomed as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better. 

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