Fixing the past
My Little Book series | 770

The nature of regret

[ 4 min read ]

Regret is the second-most common emotion people mention in daily life, some studies show. And it’s the most common negative emotion. Regret is not just some harmless, meaningless fantasy which doesn’t affect us (as opposed to a wish — a wish already means you’d prefer it). It’s a fantasy combined with the conviction that, had B happened instead of A, the past could only have been better for us (our lives could only have been better), and hence the bad feeling, the pain, the suffering. A regret is a wish.

“We start expressing regrets at around the age of two — as soon as we’re able to articulate the concept of “If only…” And thereafter, we’re continually rewriting history in our heads.” says one article in Psychology Today. The article further says that when we develop the reflex to chew on an unfortunate turn of events (and imagine better, more fortunate alternative realities /scenarios) the regret becomes toxic.

As such a regret alone can never be useful.

The only instance when a regret can be useful is when it triggers the thinking process, which means that there is a regret and right after it there is the realization that regrets are pointless. I doubt someone could realize something is pointless without going through it. If you never experienced a regret (which is very unlikely, if not impossible, among human beings, who are natural storytellers and wishful thinkers) you don’t have anything to ponder. If you never experienced it you have no problem — a regret can’t ruin your life.

I think pondering regrets can lead one only to the conclusion that having them is completely pointless. That the favorable outcomes (alternative past scenarios) that we imagine, which are necessary for the feeling of regret to occur in the first place, are the product of our wishful thinking and that we can never say with 100% certainty that the scenario which we imagined is the only possible alternative scenario. Because it isn’t.

It is important to emphasize the fact that a favorable outcome (favorable alternative past scenario) which we imagine is necessary for the feeling of regret to occur in the first place. Without it we would have only a mere fantasy which wouldn’t affect us in any way. We wouldn’t care if the past was as it actually was or if it matched our fantasy. For a regret to make sense (occur) there must be something to gain for us in this alternative scenario. It has to be a preferable scenario.

If you’re experiencing a regret it means you’re fantasizing about the past and you wish you could have been part of this fantasy (because you would be better off). I can’t imagine it being helpful or healthy for anyone. The things I can easily imagine when I think about people who have regrets are bad feelings (or more bad feelings), depression, suicide, things of that nature.

Regret is a sign that you’re paying attention. You detected the problem. No doubt about it. The quality of your life depends on what you will do next. Will you cry that you weren’t part of this fantasy, or will you realize how ridiculous it is to assume that the past could only have been better?

We can see clearly that such is the nature of regrets when we look the word up in a dictionary. We will see examples of everyday sentences which prove that a regret is not some meaningless and harmless fantasy. We will understand why regrets are so perilous to human beings.

I regret not speaking to her before she left. Which means that I believe that the past could have been fixed if only I had spoken to her before she left.

She immediately regretted her words. Which means that she believes that the past could have been fixed if only she had said something else.

I left school at 16, but I’ve had a great life and I have no regrets. If my life sucked shit I would have a reason to regret leaving school at 16. But because it doesn’t suck shit I don’t have any reason to regret it.

I have always regretted not having studied harder at school. Which means that I believe that my life could have been better if only I had studied harder at school.

I regret I didn’t buy more when they were on sale. Which means that I believe that I would have more (be better off) if only I had decided to buy more when they were on sale.

We can also find definitions which say that ‘to regret something’ means to feel sorry about a situation, especially something sad or wrong or a mistake that you have made (there is no clear indication that you wish the past could have been different). As in “I regret having been so rude to my mother.”

I think the last example is a mix of regret and remorse (self-reproach). And in some circumstances it’s actually a remorse, but mistakenly the word ‘regret’ was used.

Remorse is different than regret. One can experience a remorse without having fantasies about the past. Self-reproach is possible without wishing something could have been different (obviously better) and beating yourself up for how everything turned out. You did something despicable (you acted out) and you feel sorry / bad about this situation and you promise (yourself or/ and others) that next time you will be more cautious. A remorse will never torment you the way a regret can. A remorse means you understand how your behavior affected someone and that you will try to do better next time. Hence a remorse is good / healthy.