How to understand regret
Regretting something doesn’t change what actually happened.
This really is a terrible shame. Imagine if you could use the power of your mind to reach back into the past, meddle around for a bit, and then sit back and enjoy your perfect outcome unfold? The things you could do! You’d know all the winning Lotto numbers, be able to avoid all of the roadworks on long car journeys, and be that person who knows exactly what to say and never puts a foot wrong.
But - alas.
No matter how many times you circle around a memory and poke it with sticks, you can’t change what happened. As if our inability to undertake time-travel isn’t enough, to make matters worse, it’s impossible to think about regrets without Frank Sinatra’s My Way getting stuck in your head. Especially that line about having too few regrets to mention. Or perhaps you didn’t have that song in your head at all, but now you do? If so: welcome to my world. As I type, Sinatra croons on repeat in my mind. If I regret anything right now, it’s conjuring up that song from the fiery pits of Earworm Hell.
There are two sorts of regrets.
The first is regret for things we’ve done: things we’ve said, actions we’ve taken and decisions we’ve made. These regrets make you cringe, shudder, and screw up your face like you’ve just sucked on one of the many lemons life has thrown you. These are the regrets that make you think ug, I really suck, and that was stupid and why the hell did I do that? These regrets are the mustache you think looks handsome but in retrospect actually resembles roadkill, the witty statement lost after a moment of hesitation, or a snap decision to take a shortcut to work that results in a long walk through muddy puddles. These regrets are painful and embarrassing, but not all-consuming. Some regrets for things we've done, though, are so much worse. They are a silent scream that beg into the void: please let me turn back time. They make you want to scream or cry or yell ‘whyyyyyy’ while shaking your fist at the sky, just like you’re in a film. They are regrets that hurt. Deeply.
Some of these regrets for things we've done make sense from a psychological perspective.
We can be sorry about our actions or inactions, then remember how bad that felt when faced with the exact same decision at a later date. Trial and error is, after all, part of learning and growing. They can also help clarify your thoughts. Unfortunately, though, we aren’t always gifted with this clarity of thought. Especially if you can’t draw a clear line between cause and effect. After all, sometimes regret has no purpose apart from making you feel like shite. Useless, irrational and self-indulgent regrets that – in spite of being all of these things – can be all-consuming. I have so many questions about this sort of regretful thinking. Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it symptomatic of a wider sense of being stuck somewhere we can’t escape from? Or is it a way of fooling ourselves that we once had control over a situation, when now we are completely powerless? It’s also far too easy to lose sight of this very simple question: is it the act itself we regret, or simply the consequences?
The second type of regret is for the things we haven’t done. According to a number of quotes written in curly font set against pictures of sunsets, this is the greater evil of the two. Maybe it is worse. Regret for things that you have done can surely suck, but at least then you can draw a direct line between cause and effect. When something is done, you know exactly what the outcome is. If you’re lucky, you make peace with what happened, or learn to co-exist with the pain. That isn’t as easy with things you haven’t done. Theoretical alternative realities are almost always more rose-tinted than actual facts. Life isn’t a pick-a-path. You can’t stop, decree that you don’t like this ending, then go back to the start and try again. You only get one life, and imagined futures are almost always more glamorous than your life at present.
This is for a few different reasons.
Psychologists Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman coined the phrase ‘psychological distance’ to explain how abstract your information processing becomes when you look something from a distance. As I write in the 52 Week Project, hopes and dreams often don’t quite life up to our expectations, and this is normal. Often, that’s because when we imagine something, we look at the highlights (winning an Academy Award for your poignant portrayal of a lonely llama in last year’s blockbuster) but not the minutiae (having to wear a llama suit for months on end). This psychological distance is even more acute when you’re looking at a life outcome that never was and never will be, especially if you’re searching for external factors to blame for things in your life that haven’t gone as well as hoped. When thinking about the vacation you never went on, you don’t imagine long queues for the airplane or overpriced cocktails that taste like paint stripper. The career you didn’t pursue might have no boring parts to the working day whatsoever, even though in reality every single job has things about it that feel a little like a chore at times. When regretting things you didn’t do, the possibilities are endless. The only thing they have in common is that they can be imagined with the wistful smile of someone who can never be proven wrong.
Understanding these things can help unpick your own regrets, both for the things you have done and those you have not. Understanding the two types of regret can help you understand whether they serve you or whether they're best put to rest.
I'm not saying it's easy, though. It's not. It can take hard work and determination to find peace with the decisions you've made or those you haven't.
And then, when you're done, I wish you luck with the hardest challenge of all.
Getting Frank Sinatra's My Way out of your head.