Regret is an emotion that, like anger, has gotten a lot of bad press.
The image we often see is of a tattoo on a buffed arm that reads “No Regrets”.
Or, if you are into humor…”No Regerts”.
In a new book, Daniel Pink writes about the emotion of regret and notes that when you ask people if they have regrets, they will answer that they do not. If, however, you ask them if there are things they did (or failed to do) that they wish they had done differently, they will say “yes”.
This is, in fact, the essence of regret.
The message of regret is, indeed, that you either did something, or failed to take some action, that led to an outcome that you strongly wish had progressed differently than it did.
This could involve an action you took such as
- selling the stock just before it split and hit a new high
- losing a bunch of money because you got scammed
- “acting-out” and destroying an important relationship
It could be a missed opportunity to..
- get an education
- tell someone you loved them before they died
- reestablish a relationship that ended badly
- start a business
- buy that house
You get the idea.
The emotion of regret is often labelled as a negative emotion because it hurts.
An example from my own life..
When I was in graduate school, I was home for vacation and my mom was taken to the hospital. I had visited her in the hospital and was going to visit her a second time. I was outside the hospital in my car and decided that I would run an errand and then go and visit her. She died while I was on my errand and I was both not there for her and unable to say my final good-byes.
It is important to note that the “errand” was not at all critical.
I, maladaptively, held on to my regret for many years.
I’ll explore my regret in this situation below.
My issue with regret stemmed from my belief that the emotion could only lead to a downward spiraling rabbit hole from which there was no escape.
My self-talk regarding my mom went like this…
- I screwed up. I was not there for my mom in her moment of need.
- My actions led to a bad situation which I can’t change. She died and I will never be able to comfort her and tell her how much I loved her.
- I should have made a different decision. I knew that the errand was not significant but I “bought” my rationalization. I acted in a cowardly manner.
- My actions will always haunt me because I can’t change what I did.
- There must be something wrong with me that led me to screw up. I was in grad school and knew about rationalization. I did not acknowledge my own inability to cope with my mom dying. I should have acted differently.
- I screwed up because I was unable to deal with my anxiety. I will always be haunted by my guilt because there is no way for me to make it right.
Experiencing an emotional maelstrom involving self-criticism (guilt), self-denigration (shame) and being stuck (regret) was horrible. But, it is exactly this negative emotional soup that is associated with the emotion of regret and that gives it its bad reputation.
As a Psychologist with the Youth Authority, I had 5 young incarcerated women all of whom had killed their children. I need to say upfront that while I always maintained that they were responsible for their actions, I needed to help them deal with their regret so that I could help them grow and develop into healthy adults once they left the institution.
In order to help them and deal with my own regret, I developed and embraced the idea of IWBNI which allowed me and my clients to “eliminate” the emotion of regret by approaching the event as an IWBNI (It Would Be Nice If).
Viewing what I did through the lens of an IWBNI solved two issues which, to me, embodied the worst aspects of regret..
- We (My clients and I) screwed up.
- There was nothing that could be done to make it right.
How IWBNI works.
Noting that “It would be nice if” the (screw-up) had never happened…
- tacitly acknowledges and validates that it DID happen
- detaches the “screw-up” from any attached self-recrimination
- puts the undesired outcome both in perspective and in the past
- allows us to acknowledge and move past whatever was done and the negative outcome it elicited and
- allows us to learn from our actions.
While using IWBNI’s, per se, is still a viable and effective approach to events which elicit regret, I now believe that regret ought to be considered a valid emotion that can be mastered like any other emotion.
I paid too little attention to the learning potential of regret and it is this potential that is the key to using regret as a strategic emotional tool.
It is important to note here that there are two categories of regrettable actions.
- Actions you have no opportunity to change.
- Actions you can do something to reverse the past and create a new outcome.
Category 2 was easy. If I could change my future behavior, great, regret could be strategically deployed as motivating me to avoid future similar screw-ups.
I, however, had viewed the emotion of regret only in terms of the first category.
Indeed, if you could not do anything to change, or reverse, what happened, I reasoned that you were powerless regarding the focus of your regret and, therefore, your only choice was to validate the emotion, accept your actions, and move on.
To put it another way, the emotion of regret informed me that I screwed up. Okay. But, it also reminded me that there was nothing I could do to change what I’d done. Therefore, there was nothing to learn. Consequently, regret could not be strategically deployed.
I was mistaken.
My epiphany about regret was that you could, indeed, learn from both categories of situations.
And, to the extent that you could learn from your actions, regret could become an emotion you could master.
To utilize regret as a strategic tool, there are 4 steps…
- Acknowledgment— IWBNI
- Context —The BRR
- Compassion and Understanding—Self-forgiveness
- Consolidation and Moving on—List of what you learned
Step #1 Acknowledgment
As I discussed above, viewing what you regret through the IWBNI lens allows to acknowledge and validate the situation without judgement. You may still judge yourself and I will address that below. The IWBNI, per se, simply acknowledges what happened and the truth that you wish it had not happened without any inherent placement of blame.
Once you have acknowledged the situation and your actions, you are ready to progress to step #2 which involves understanding what you did.
Step #2 The Basic Relationship Rule (BRR)
As I have discussed in other posts, the BRR states that everyone in every situation does the best they can given their Model of the World and their skill sets.
While I don’t have room here to go into the BRR in depth, its relevance to the emotion of regret is that you now have a context to understand the actions you took that you now regret. What was your understanding about your situation, the perspective you took in the situation and the resources you had available to you to deal with that situation?
Now that you have acknowledged and gains some insight into what you did, you are ready for step #3 which involves compassion.
Step #3 Compassion
In step #3, you approach yourself as you would a good friend who did something you did not like. You express compassion toward yourself and you forgive yourself for what you did.
Self-forgiveness, like forgiving others, does not mean justifying what you did or letting yourself off the hook, per se, for the regrettable actions you took. Self-forgiveness simply communicates that it did happen and self-blame is no longer needed.
You can let go of your judgement.
Now that your actions have been acknowledged, understood and removed from self-blame, you are ready for step #4.
Step 4 Consolidation and Moving on
The final step involves listing what you have learned about your actions and making a plan to act differently should a similar situation arise (if this is possible) or if a situation that resembles (in any way) what originally took place happens again.
This is you consolidating what regret has painfully reminded you that you to do.
Once you have consolidated what you have learned, you are ready to move on.
What did I learn from my regret?
Whenever I am in a situation in which I know I need to act but I do not or I rationalize, I will step back, take a deep breath, reassess what is actually going on and what I am trying to avoid, and do what I know needs to be done.
I have mastered my regret.
Indeed, I still regret not going up to my mom’s room to be with her in her last moments on earth but I do not feel guilt and, in several situations, I have taken action I might otherwise have avoided because it didn’t feel absolutely right.