If you could go back in time and change one decision you made or one action you took, what would it be? This question has been a favorite plot device of books, television shows and movies since the genres were invented, mostly because it plays into an emotion all of us know far too well: regret.
Psychologists have recently released some interesting discoveries about this least-favorite feeling. One thing on which they all agree: From Biblical times (“Okay, so maybe the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge thing wasn’t such a good idea”) to modern politics (“I’m sorry for any way in which this has hurt my family”), regret is a little word with the power to define how people choose to live their lives.
The bad news is, if regret becomes the defining emotion of your life, it can lead to depression, emotional and spiritual paralysis and despair.
But if you can use it as a steppingstone to learn from the past, forgive yourself and help yourself and others, the regret can be transformed into a motivator for positive action and healthy change.
In a recent study, researcher Carsten Wrosch from Concordia University in Montreal and psychologist Jutta Heckhausen from UC Irvine in California found that the healthiest way to deal with regret actually changes as you age. From young adulthood to middle age, the best way to deal with regret is to shoulder most of the responsibility yourself. This means admitting that you trained for an occupation that doesn’t interest you, married an abusive spouse or have a bad relationship with your parents. At this time in your life, taking responsibility for the choices that led to your regrets can motivate you to make new choices and change your life.
The benefit of taking action was borne out in another study carried out by psychologists Abigail Stewart and Elizabeth Vandewater, who followed 200 female college graduates for more than 30 years. In their 20s and 30s, most of the young women’s regrets concerned missed career opportunities or difficult personal relationships. By the time they reached their 40s, 65 percent of the women had used those feelings of regret to spur them to action: They had gotten more education, created better job opportunities and worked to find and enhance personal relationships. And, not surprisingly, the same 65 percent scored very high on positive mental health indicators. The remaining 35 percent who were still nursing the same regrets without changing their situations scored much higher on symptoms of depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and worthlessness.
“Dealing with regret and remorse can be a tremendous opportunity for growth,” said Elizabeth Flynn Campbell, a psychotherapist practicing in New York City. “I believe to move through regret, you must know the feeling of unconditional love. For example, a child breaks a favorite vase. If that child is confident she is loved regardless of her imperfections, she feels free to come forward and admit to breaking it. However, a child who knows only conditional love can’t deal with the incident directly.
“Most of us did not have unconditional love as children, and our spiritual journey consists of finding that from God or our belief tradition,” Campbell continued. “So while the process of dealing with regret can be very painful, it is a necessary step. Ultimately, true peace in life comes only when we know that we are fully loved for who we are, not for how good we’ve been or how few mistakes we’ve made. Mistakes are a given, and we’re worthy anyway.”
The quicksand of regret can often be the endless loop of “if onlys” that we play in our minds. Neal Roese of the University of Illinois at Urbana, pointed out that not only are “if onlys” pointless—that alternate version of the past can never happen—but you must remember that you’ve created a fictional account of what life would be like if you’d made a different choice. Roese said, “With regret, you’re only imagining how your life could have been better. You could just as well ask how it could have been worse.”
One thing on which all the psychologists agree: Regret is a natural part of living a fully engaged life. The more you take risks and relate to others, the more often you’ll be called on to make complex choices that will lead you to regret—but also to intimacy, joy and satisfaction. You’ll never know what would have happened if you’d chosen differently over the years. Seen in that light, regret becomes its own badge of honor—evidence of a life well lived.
READ MORE LIFE | POST COMMENTS BELOW