Who has no regrets?
Édith Piaf may have boldly and brazenly declared that she did not regret anything in her famous song Non, je ne regrette rien, but most of us are more cautious about regrets and probably more readily focus upon the negative rather than the positive aspects. One dictionary definition of regret (noun) is:
1: sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one's control or power to repair
2a: an expression of distressing emotion (such as sorrow) 1
We can easily misjudge what is and what isn’t within our “control or power to repair”, and thus miss an opportunity to do something about an issue. This can later become another source of regret!
Moya Sarner makes a helpful distinction between toxic regret and remorse. 2
But regret does not only serve as a defence against the risk of loving – it can serve a darker purpose, allowing people to hide from the deeper pain of remorse. Morgan says: “Remorse involves insight into what one has done to others. That is the beginning of becoming aware of how one behaves and wanting to do something differently...”
Lila MacLellan draws upon research by Davidai and Gilovich about the types of regrets that have incredible staying power, namely those about what we could have done, not what we did do wrong. Although we experience both sorts, studies have found that across cultures and demographics, it’s regrets about inactions that haunt more of us for long periods. 3
Through inaction we may miss opportunities whose consequence will remain forever unknown, but about which we can endlessly ruminate, and this can be extremely unhelpful.
Mark Manson raises the issue of the difference between a mistake and a regret. He argues that “a regret is simply a mistake that we haven’t learned the proper lesson from yet.” 4 Learning thus becomes a key process in constructively managing the negative aspects of regrets.
Vasundhara Sawhney writes specifically and helpfully about the lockdown and our emotional reactions to it, and how we can handle some of the negative consequences. 5
To cope with regret and leave the past where it happened, we need to: 1) Recognize our feelings and let them out. 2) Look at the past with gratitude rather than the lost opportunity costs. 3) Make regret productive by thinking about what we value and what actions we can take to get closer to the things that matter to us.
He interviewed Dr. Amy Silver 6, an expert in emotion management, and she defined regret as
the feeling that we may have had something more positive now if we had made a different decision in the past, feeling sorry for misfortunes, or the disappointment over something we’ve failed to do. Largely we feel regret in terms of things we haven’t done (missed opportunities) more intensely than regret of things we did do (or decisions we made).
How often do we find ourselves saying or hear others saying, “If only...”? Much self-help literature gives suggestions on managing such self-talk, and can be readily applied to helping others.
Older people have more years to look back upon than years to look forward to, and in looking back there is an opportunity to take stock and come to a measured evaluation of one’s life.
1. Merriam-Webster dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regret
2. Moya Sarner (2019) Regret can seriously damage your mental health – here's how to leave it behind. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/27/regret-can-seriously-damage-your-mental-health-heres-how-to-leave-it-behind
3. Lila MacLellan (2018) A new study on the psychology of persistent regrets can teach you how to live now. https://qz.com/work/1298110/a-new-study-on-the-psychology-of-persistent-regrets-can-teach-you-how-to-live-now/
4. Mark Manson (2020) How to Let Go of Your Regrets. https://markmanson.net/regret
5. Vasundhara Sawhney (2021) It’s Time to Make Peace with Your Regrets. https://hbr.org/2021/06/its-time-to-make-peace-with-your-regrets
6. Dr. Amy Silver (2020) The Loudest Guest. Major Street Publishing