The Right Way to Handle Regret and Move On With Your Life
Regrets run the gamut from tiny to huge, niggling to haunting. Who hasn't wished them away?
No one is immune to regret, even the best and brightest among us. Barack Obama regrets not spending more time with his daughters. Donald Trump regrets either starting a trade war with China or not doing it more aggressively (hard to tell). Business tycoons regret plenty: their past timidity, reluctance to change course, missed opportunities.
People even try to choose their current behaviors on the basis of what they suspect they might regret much later, even on their deathbeds (that’s why “regrets of the dying” pieces like this go viral). Regret must really suck.
If you express a regret of yours, others will offer you predictable salves:
You couldn't have known!
You did the best you could.
It was the first time you ever had to do that, so you were inexperienced.
It was the last time you ever did that, so you've learned from your mistake!
No, you actually did do the right thing.
[Some relevant party] wouldn't want you to worry about it.
Do any of these regret fixes work? As far as I can tell, not really.
People pass around conventional regret advice in an attempt to lick their wounds just because they don't know of anything better to do instead. That's why you're reading this piece, isn’t it? The regular advice hasn't worked and you're still interested in how to handle regret.
Take a step back: where do regrets come from? Why do we catch regrets? Surely such common, annoying experience has to have a function.
In particular, it's tempting to view regrets as educational, as leading us towards things we didn't used to know — but may now learn. Regret can attune you to the value in your life, even if it's value foregone. Perhaps regret can clue you into a change you need to make in yourself.
Even if regret is coincidentally sometimes useful, I doubt it's useful on net. It often covers situations with extenuating circumstances that you won't face again, or from when you were immature or otherwise a different person. Even after you recognize that, you still feel regret! What an emotional black hole.
Instead, I offer a different working theory of regret:
Regret is simply the side effect of having enough cognitive horsepower to contemplate various versions of the past (and their previously-possible futures) in a systematic way.
When something notable has happened, your brain gets to work churning through these combinations of choices, their causes and effects. Some of them grab your emotional imagination, because they seem better than what you've got now. Then you get stuck.
This negatively-biased brain churning explains the odd finding that bronze medalists seem happier than silver medalists. If it were just about rank, then silver medalists would be happier — but they’re not.
Competitors’ happiness also depends on how things could have gone, counterfactually - an invitation for regret. Bronze medalists don’t readily conclude they really could have taken home the gold, but silver medalists do. Second place is the main regretter.
In other words, regret is mostly mental noise. It's a byproduct of mentally reiterating the past and dealing yourself another hand, more like bug than feature. There is no intrinsic value to regret.
So, the good news here is that you don't need to solve, justify, or fix a regret.
The bad news is that you are probably going to be forced to live with some assortment of regrets: regrets are a brute fact about human psychology.
Still, there's hope. Ruminating is a kind of mental action. When you ruminate on something, you automatically lend credence to it — it's the mental equivalent of washing your hands because you imagine they're dirty.
But compulsions like ruminating and handwashing don't make things better, they make it worse. They lock you into a vicious cycle of feeling bad and doing something, anything, to try to make it go away.
So instead of letting your brain do its regret-churning thing or doubling down on that in an attempt to reason the regret away, try a different approach:
Take a deep breath.
Feel whatever comes up.
No arguing with yourself, no grasping for hidden or forgotten reasons. Just feel.
It might feel bad! No one promised having a kludgy glorified monkeybrain would be easy. Regret can hurt. Maybe you learned something, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you did your best, maybe you didn’t.
In any case, fishing for meanings that aren't there only adds needless suffering to the unavoidable pain of not being able to change the past.
P.P.S. Special thanks to Mike Brown, Srinidhi Reddy, Matt Rudnitsky, and Will Mannon for their feedback on this piece.