by Dr. Laurel Schwartz
It seems impossible to live a life without regrets. Indeed, the experience of regret is perhaps, part of the very definition of being human.
However, there are different types of regrets. One type of regret comes from taking an action and incurring a negative outcome. As a result, a person feels pain and often wishes they could take the action back. Inside their head they might be saying something like, “I regret I ever did that.” (1) For example, a man might be interested in asking a woman out on a date. He assesses the situation and thinks she has communicated she likes him. After he asks her on a date, she turns him down. The rejection hurts. He may feel embarrassed or humiliated. He wishes he hadn’t pursued her. However, the pain eventually subsides with the passage of time. Sometimes a person can also feel better by changing or modifying the bad outcome. Other times the outcome can be reframed. For example, a person can tell himself or herself, “Everything happens for a reason.” Other people may view the failure as not regretful, but as a learning experience. (2)
The second kind of regret involves not taking action at all. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.’” By not taking the action the person can be deluged by lots of “what if” fantasies of their own making. Failing to act can be due to many factors including hidden and unarticulated fears or a lack of confidence. People have more regret over failing to take action than taking an action and failing.
But if people could live their lives over again, what specifically would they do differently? The research suggests that men and women would spend more time pursuing education, and be more serious and disciplined in their approach. In addition, men and women stated they often wanted to live their lives in a more assertive manner. (1) (3)
Ruminating about opportunities lost is a sure road to depression. Indeed, living with regrets is not living at all. At the end of the day, you need to recognize those times when you might want to jump past your fears and anxieties and seize the opportunity that is in front of you. However, there are other times, when you may not act and need to respect your own hesitation and cautiousness. The trick is to know when to jump in and when to hang back. But no matter what choices you make, from time to time you’re bound to make a mistake. After all, you’re only human.
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(1) Hattiangadi, H., Medvec, V. H., & Gilovich, T. (1995). Failing to Act: Regrets of Terman’s Geniuses. Int’l. J. Aging and Human Development, 40 (3), 175-185.
(2) Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The Experience of Regret: What, When, and Why. Psychological Review, 102 (2), 379-385.
(3) Degenova, M.K. (1992). If You Had Your Life to Live Over Again: What Would You Do Differently? Int’l. J. Aging and Human Development, 34 (2) 1335-143.