Regret gets a bad rap. We are admonished to avoid this feeling at all costs. However, as with most all-or-nothing thinking, labeling regret as completely negative is an extreme generalization.
When we take a closer look, regret is simply a personal reaction (with both cognitive and emotional elements) to the consequence of a past act or behavior. But is regret actually negative? When we consider that regret occurs as a result of a negative consequence, is it possible that we assign a negative value to the experience of regret due to the negative cause of it?
DOES REGRET HAVE A PURPOSE?
Regret in and of itself is not bad – it’s the way we handle it that presents a potential problem. Regret may have the purpose of alerting us to situations that are inconsistent with what we know is in the best interest for well-being, and then compelling us to make corrections for the sake of future well-being. Without it, we would never have a reason to contemplate any of our past actions and behaviors.
Visualize a buoy in the water. Its design causes it to always be right side up. Even if you push it under water or turn it upside-down, it quickly pops back up and it rights itself. It is possible that regret is an internal “righting” mechanism. It diverts our attention long enough for us to identify, understand, and correct problems so that we don’t repeat them in the future. Therefore, when we make mistakes, regret is there to help us to make adjustments and “right” ourselves so that we can properly manage future situations.
Our brains are designed to interpret and make sense of the world in which we live, with the overarching goal of protecting us from danger and demise. Therefore, it is continuously scanning and interpreting so that we can create a sense of order in the form of expectations (based on what we’ve learned through previous experience), which helps us to avoid potentially harmful situations.
Experience-based learning occurs through our experiences with cause and effect. We learn that certain decisions and behaviors lead to specific consequences. Regret, therefore, is a mechanism that compels us to stop and deeply consider something that has caused disruption to our well-being. The cognitive component helps us to connect the dots between cause and effect, and the emotional component (i.e., remorse, guilt, etc.) ensures that we never forget the lesson.
Regret triggers mental inspection. It channels our attention so that we can make important connections toward our understanding of how one thing (i.e., a decision or behavior) leads to another (consequence). Once we recognize that a decision/action has caused a negative consequence, we naturally experience the feeling of regret, wishing we had made a different choice. This is what helps us to gain insight and make better decisions in the future. However, when we become stuck in the mindset of wishing we could change the past – that is when we become mired in the negative emotional components, such as extreme remorse and guilt, which can ultimately lead to depression.
CAN REGRET BE USED AS A TOOL?
Regret, when managed properly, is a mechanism for growth. For growth, it is actually healthy to look back on situations to examine our mistakes, and even to feel a degree of remorse or regret because it can often lead to changes. However, when looking back, it is important to know the difference between a glance and a stare.
We should understand that when looking at the past, more is not better. A glance allows us to examine a situation just long enough to see the mistake, connect the dots, extract a lesson, and then quickly move on, However, staring at the past is often counterproductive. If we are simply staring at the past with no purpose in mind – simply wallowing in it without a plan to move past it – it becomes emotionally detrimental.
Rumination, constantly going over the details of a past occurrence, often leads to a state of entrapment. Although there is a constant examination of the past occurrence, there is no actual productive end in mind. Instead, we continue to focus on the mistake itself (instead of the lesson) until it becomes larger than life. As a result, we feel completely overwhelmed as if eclipsed in the shadow of it.
It is unfortunate when we become stuck in the negative emotional components of regret (i.e., guilt, remorse, anger/lack of forgiveness toward self), because we minimize the benefits of the cognitive component (lesson learned), which makes it extremely hard to move on. With so much focus on the past, we begin to lose precious moments of the present. And when we can’t properly focus on the present, it also jeopardizes the future.
If we can recognize that regret is a normal emotion that we all feel to some degree, and that regret can serve a positive purpose, then perhaps we can see it more as a tool – something that triggers us to actually SEARCH for the lessons provided by negative consequences. If we can become adept at finding the lesson, then we can recognize when regret has outlived its usefulness, and instead file away the lesson versus the regret itself.
REGRET HELPS US TO EVOLVE
When we feel regret, it is a sign that we wish we could have done something differently. It means we recognize and desire better experiences for ourselves. Without regret, we may not recognize when we could have made better choices, which would make it difficult for us to grow from our experiences.
From an existential standpoint, regret is an important mechanism that ensures that we process the meaning of our experiences. It protects our well-being by guiding us toward less disruption in our future experiences, which in turn maximizes our existence.
On the most basic level, we seek to maximize positive experiences while minimizing the negative ones (recognized by our minds as threats). Our minds are designed to learn from the negative experiences so that we don’t repeat mistakes that threaten our existence. In this sense, we are naturally wired for evolution and growth.
Therefore, regret is not positive or negative. Regret is simply a human reaction that coerces us toward improvement. It is a sign that we possess an inherent desire to positively evolve . . . which is something we share with all other humans.
“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past.
But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles,
and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.”
Do you try to avoid regret? Is is actually possible to avoid it? Do you believe regret can be used positively?