I saw her across a crowded room at a post conference networking event. It had been nearly twenty years since we had any contact. Our last conversation could be described as “chilly.” At that time, she was my manager. She also represented a few firsts for me -my first female manager and the first manager hired from outside of the company – both anomalies at the time. She saw things differently, including my preferred career choices. We disagreed, and I made the changes she wanted more difficult than they needed to be. After a few promotions, she left the company and we lost touch. Interestingly, as time went on, I grew to understand her view and recognize that she had good ideas – ideas I should have tried.
What is Regret?
My reflections in the moment, that I was wrong and should have tried something different, connected me to the universal emotion of regret. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, summarizes the conditions of regret in her TED Talk Why Should We Embrace Regret. Regret, it seems, is the result of agency and imagination. Agency is a personal decision that results in a choice; imagination helps us score that decision to the present. Regret occurs when we imagine the alternative outcome as scoring much better results than the ones we experienced. Psychologists call this counterfactual thinking; think of it as the “if -then” thought process. “If” we had tried something different,’ “then’ something better would have happened. It’s our mental manipulation of the imagined better outcome that produces regret.
Is Regret Wrong?
Some espouse a view that that regret is to be avoided; that a life free of regret is a desirable goal. This view scares me. Does it mean we should avoid decisions because they require a choice? Does it mean that we live without empathy for others who live with the adverse consequences of our decisions? Does it mean that we shouldn’t reflect and conclude that we could have done better? If so, I don’t want a life free of regret. What I want is to make regret constructive instead of destructive, to make it something that informs my future choices instead of ruminating over past ones.
Four Reactions to Regret that Keep Us Stuck
Schulz presents four common ways we react to regret that get in our way:
1. Denial – the Make it go away reaction. This shows up in “I didn’t”, “They did” and other fault-finding statements. When we look for justification, we might just be stuck in denial.
2. Bewilderment – the How could I have done that? reaction. Listen for this in the overuse of why, how and what questions. When we are looking for that one more fact that will make it all make sense, we are stuck here.
3. Punishment – the I could kick myself reaction. Punishment shows up in self-blame that the whole mess is entirely our fault; that somehow we lack the infallible judgment present in everyone else, so we excuse ourselves when we get into messes.
4. The Infinite Loop – Playing the decision over an over again like an infinite loop. The players are the same, the outcomes are the same we just can’t stop ruminating or sharing our story of woe just to make sure we remember how bad it was.
Positive Alternative Reactions
I wonder if those who say they want to live without regret really mean that they want to live without these four reactions. Fortunately, alternative reactions help us put regret into perspective and serve as a catalyst for an improved attitude. Substitute self-limiting reactions to regret with one of these:
1. Consider what we can control. The article Don’t Look Back In Anger from the May issue of Science presents a case that healthy aging produces constructive responsiveness to regret. (There has to be some advantage to getting older!) Results of experiments show that healthy older people have a better perspective on factors they can control, and as a result engage less in counterfactual thinking that they could have made an alternative choice where all factors would have broken in their favor. The good news is that you don’t have to wait to get older to understand that you will never control all factors in a decision, and the alternative outcome might have just been different, instead of better.
2. Laugh at yourself. Schulz points out the benefits of humor, even dark humor, to force us into a different perspective. When we lighten up on ourselves and others, we can see decisions that turned bad as bumps in the road instead of the end of the road. Self-effacing humor has the additional advantage of encouraging empathy and forgiveness.
3. Use regret as a teachable moment. Have you heard the phrase: When we know better, we do better? Research from Texas A&M and Idaho State University supports this point. A study shows that one benefit from counterfactual thinking is that it supports self-regulation for the next time we face a similar situation. In practical terms, it means that regret over a failed exam motivates a student to better manage study time in order to pass the next time. If we imagine not only different outcomes, but also different behavior to achieve them, counterfactual thinking helps us make better choices about things we control to improve results.
A Happy Ending
So, many years later, a wiser version of myself moved across the room. My former manager greeted me with a look of surprise and a smile. The words came easier for me in that moment than they would have years earlier. I expressed regret that I was not more open to her ideas, recognition that in hindsight she was right, and I was sorry for any difficulty I caused her. She was gracious and generous in accepting my apology. Curious about my current status, she even offered advice for my new endeavor. And, this time, I listened.
Schulz, K. Why We Should Embrace Regret Kathryn Schultz TED Talk
Brassen, S., Gamer, M. Peters, J. Gluth, S., Buchel, C. (2012) Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Non Successful Aging. Science, May 2012.
Smallman, R. and McCulloch, K. (2012) Learning from Yesterday’s Mistakes to Fix Tomorrow’s Problems: When Counterfactual Thinking and Psychological Distance Collide. European Journal of Social Psychology, Jan. 2012, vol. 42 pp. 383-390.