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The Gift of Regret

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Regret is a universal human emotion. Not to be confused with guilt. Guilt is an interpersonal harm. Guilt is felt when what you have done was intentionally done to cause the other person harm or pain in some way. Regret is harm to oneself. Regret is felt when you inadvertently caused pain or harm (perceived or real) to someone and you wish you could change the past. Regret is a “comparison-based emotion of self-blame, experienced when people realize or imagine that their present situation would have been better had they decided differently in the past” (Zeelenberg, M., Nelissen, R. M. A., Breugelmans, S. M., & Pieters, R. (2008)). Surveys have found that people think about their biggest regrets of inaction more frequently than their biggest regrets of action. But left to fester, regrets can control your mood to ill effect and make you miserable. We can see the function of regret as helping people learn from their mistakes.

Regret of Actions Taken– – In relationships that can mean regretting your choice of partner, staying too long with your partner, giving up their dreams for a partner, lack of communication with your spouse, what effect your break-up had on the kids etc. Regretting things that we have done in our lives causes regret to linger for a relatively short period of time either because you have not yet processed your pain or learned the lessons from the relationship. Regret can also help individuals make sense of their past experiences, facilitate approach behaviours, facilitate avoidance behaviours, gain new insight into the self, or preserve social harmony. Research shows that regrets concerning relationships and family tend to be more frequent among women than among men. (Jokisaari, 2004).

Regret of Actions not Taken (i.e. inaction) – E.g. failing to tell someone you loved them. Those who suffer most regret tend to be as a result of those outcomes that could have been changed in the past but can now no longer be changed and for which people experience low psychological closure. Regretting things we wish we had done – this kind of regret can extend throughout a life time. This kind of regret is more frequently associated with poorer health and life satisfaction. People’s biggest regrets are often a reflection of where in life they see their largest opportunities; that is, where they see tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal. That regret is intensified by perceptions of future opportunity and your ideal self. We tend not to feel the same pressure to process regrets for the path not taken, due largely because they often don’t elicit a “strong” emotional response (like anger or guilt) the way making a mistake does. Instead these regrets are often met with a shrug, feelings of sadness or disappointment—and we often simply stuff them away to be dealt with later. But more often than not the later never materializes and over time the feelings of regret grow in significance.

Yet regretting lost opportunities has the ability to facilitate the process of turning attention and motivation toward opportunities that may still be available to you. Regret and its associated ruminations can motivate people to act upon opportunities to remedy the regretted outcome. There are good reasons to act upon your feelings of regret whether that be in the sphere of education, career, romance, or parenting.

So how can we each minimize our regrets? First understand exactly what your regret stems from. If your regret is related to an action taken then it serves us well to look into our oldest woes and regrets and become acquainted with their nature, and the nature of our response to them. You may need to grieve the regrets that are presently holding you hostage. Remember it’s never too late to alter the feeling of regret by taking some kind of action such as reconciling with that family member, or friend. Perhaps an apology is needed. If there is something you can do now, do it! Forgive, make amends and convey your regret. Accept what has happened and think of the current options you have.

If our regret relates to an action not taken then now is the time to take action! Being bold is a great way to minimize this kind of regret. Fear is the most common reason people fail to take a particular course of action. Most of us are scared and choose the easy path, the path of least resistance. So many of us take the safe option – the first job we’re offered, the good enough relationship – the list is endless. So minimize your regret by starting to take risks. Bold moves evolve slowly and as you take little risks, your risk tolerance and your comfort zone will extend. Stop believing you’re stuck – by doing so you will surmount regret. To avoid regret you have to take action. Ask for what you want – have the audacity to just ask for it. And while this seems self-explanatory it can also feel overwhelming. Be unapologetic about the things you love in life. Be confident as you ask for what it is you want. If you don’t ask – the answer will always be no. You may be surprised by what people will be willing to say yes to.

In both situations (action taken or not taken) you can work through your regret.

Try this Experiment: Take a piece of paper and write all your feelings out in relation to the regretted action or inaction – for yourself, not necessarily with the intention of sending them to anyone. Express all the remorseful feelings you are holding onto. Avoid using the words “If only…then”. When you feel you have expressed all that you need to – create a ritual for destroying the paper in a way that makes you feel fulfilled – e.g. burn it, bury it, attach it to a balloon and let it go. And begin to let the feelings go.

And don’t forget that regret can bring us much in self-learning and personal evolution.

References

Zeelenberg, M., Nelissen, R. M. A., Breugelmans, S. M., & Pieters, R. (2008) On emotion specificity in decision making: Why feeling is for doing. Judgment and Decision Making, 3(1), 18–27).

Jokisaari, M. Regrets and Subjective Well-Being: A Life Course Approach. Journal of Adult Development 11, 281–288 (2004).

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