Clients sometimes say they are having trouble making a decision because (they say) “I think I might regret it”.
My first question when somebody says this is, “are you the kind of person who goes in for regretting things?”
Sure, almost everybody regrets some choices or actions they have taken. Yet many people just acknowledge that and move on, while other people seem to sit with the emotion of regret, mentally hand-wringing, and making themselves unhappy.
Why do some of us do this? Well, here are a couple of ideas.
The Ordered World Idea
Regretfulness fits with the idea of an ordered world - a world where there is always a “right” choice, like a marble going through a maze, where some paths are dead ends, but one leads freely to the exit. This worldview suggested that if a choice went badly, it is because there was another better choice that would have been “the right” one.
For instance, you might think: “Oh no, I wish we hadn’t come to Southport on holiday and had such a cold wet time. If only we’d gone to Brighton – it was sunny there all week and we’d have had a great holiday.”
But whatever the weather, truth is, we don’t know what would have happened if we’d gone to Brighton: we might have caught chicken pox, or got burgled, or just been grumpy and miserable.
If this is an ordered world like a marble maze, then if we just get either lucky or clever enough to keep picking the “right” turnings, we’ll have a serene happy life. This might be a reassuring worldview in a way. But as it’s almost certainly not true, it will tend to produce regretful thinking.
The Personal Power Hypothesis
Compared to other animals, humans have an amazing capacity to plan and evaluate future situations. This can lead us to have quite grandiose ideas about our own personal power to control our lives. True, I can model the future much better than my cat, but I’m not a fortune-teller.
Regretful people often say things like “I should have known it would go badly”.
But how? Even the most powerful computers are not able to work out complex human issues like what job or relationship is going to promote maximal happiness for somebody. So why do people think we should be able to compute this?
Perhaps there is something comforting about the idea that humans really do have this sort of superpower.
If I think like this, I will have a lot of regrets, and probably be unhappy. But at least that is familiar and I don’t have to face the frightening thought that 90% of factors in my life are way beyond my control, and I am much less powerful or important that I think.
How Do I Stop Regretting?
This mental behaviour can be quite an entrenched habit and as such, quite difficult to change. However the following steps may help decrease its power over you, if you tend to be a great regretter:
- Be aware: notice that you are in your regretfulness pattern when it is happening. Note that not everybody does this, and that you don’t have to.
- Remember: your action was done for reasons that made sense at the time, reminding yourself of the context can help reduce regretful feelings
- Accept: most of us mess up in small or large ways regularly throughout our lives. The thing that you regret just makes you human and fallible. Accepting fallibility in ourselves is an important part of accepting humanity as a whole, and will increase your empathy and appreciation of others too.