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Regretting your regrets

Recently I was hauling big leafy tree branches across my driveway to a pile on the other side. During the process my glasses got knocked off and since my hands were full of heavy cumbersome debris I decided that instead of stopping and stooping to pick up my glasses, I would get them when I returned for the next load of branches.

Because I was focusing on the task at hand, I forgot about the glasses and a minute later I stepped on them, scratching them horribly. Having the lenses replaced (including the required eye exam) set me back almost $400.

I was upset with myself. If only I had stopped and picked up the glasses immediately. If only I had remembered they were on the ground. If only I had not dropped my vision insurance this year.

I had regrets.

Regrets or no?

Having regrets is regarded as failure. We're supposed to shout “No regrets!” It’s like a badge of honor to go through life saying you regret nothing. Unfortunately, saying you have no regrets is different than actually having no regrets, which is impossible because:

1) you will always do stupid things

2) your primitive lizard brain is designed to focus on negative experiences

3) you can’t help but think about what might have been

But that’s okay. Regretting past mistakes is an uncomfortable but powerful way to learn from them. So don’t regret your regrets.

Undoing the past

One of the methods we use when reviewing negative experiences is to imagine what we could have done differently that would have changed the result.

That is the nature of regret – the feeling of “If only I had done this, then that bad thing wouldn’t have happened.” Psychologists call this the simulation heuristic, where we re-run simulations of past events with different decisions and different outcomes.

Regretting can be extremely painful, and that is why we try desperately to avoid it.

Studies have revealed the following about regret:

- Regretting an action feels more intense in the short term than regretting a non-action does, but regretting not doing something feels more intense over the long term. “If only I had spoken up earlier.” “If only I had asked her out.” “If only I had taken that job.”

- The biggest end-of-life regrets are in these areas: education, career, romance, parenting. “I should have studied more, chosen a different career, said ‘I love you’ more, and spent more time with my kids.”

- Near misses cause more regret because it is easier to imagine small changes that could have changed the outcome. For example, if you miss your flight by 5 minutes it feels worse than if you missed it by 30 minutes because you can easily imagine doing one small thing differently that could have made a big difference.

Reducing Regret

While completely avoiding regret is impossible, there are a couple of strategies you can take now to reduce the impact of regrets later.

- Because one of the major causes of regrets is inaction, be bold in your decision making. Stretch yourself. Do something you have never done before. Even if you fail, you won’t regret that you didn’t try.

- Think more – react less. Regrets often come in response to impulsive action (“What was I thinking?”). Be sure your decisions align with your goals and values.

- Understand the risks before you decide to do – or not do – something.

Handling Regrets

Sometimes things don’t work out and it’s our fault. It’s okay to look back with regret knowing you could have done something differently. But beating yourself up isn’t helpful.

However, perhaps it wasn’t your fault after all. Understand that even good decisions can have bad outcomes because other variables come into play beyond your control, even randomness.

I often think about a scene in the fascinating movie, Magnolia. Jason Robards’ character was on his deathbed talking about his painful life regrets. He didn’t lament having regrets because he knew they are a part of life and death. “You can regret anything you want,” he advised. “Use that regret any way you want.”

My suggestion - use it to learn from, improve and grow.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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