Of all the innumerable platitudes and wellness posts littering our social-media feeds, “Live life. No regrets.” is one of the most problematic in its alluring simplicity.
Why do internet wellness gurus stress the importance of living life “to the fullest” (whatever that means) and having no regrets? Is that even a reasonable or realistic goal?
What, Exactly, Is Regret?
The emotional experience of regret is complex. It’s a feeling of disappointment, sadness, or remorse that can be caused by things we have done either to ourselves or to others. For example, you might say or do something hurtful to a friend or loved one, and the sorrow you feel in the aftermath would be called regret.
Guilt, by contrast, shifts the focus toward “I am a bad person because I did this,” while regret holds fast to the feeling of sadness and carries the risk of tipping over into sorrow or despair.
Regret, in particular, is an emotion that physically resides in our bodies and is often felt as a heaviness in the chest or a sinking feeling in the gut. Interestingly, the intent behind your regretful action has little impact on the intensity of the emotions you feel. You can have significant regrets about something done accidentally, just as you may hold very little regret for an intentional act.
Generally, most of our feelings are a response to an action or relationship. Regret distinguishes itself in that it can also be triggered by thinking about or reflecting on things we have not even done yet. People can regret not having a difficult but important conversation, or not taking a trip, or not participating in a potentially meaningful event.
Psychologically Useful Regret
Experiencing regret is natural, and it’s all but impossible to make it through life without having regrets. So why do we place so much emphasis on avoiding it? Perhaps it’s because we don’t consider how feelings of regret can help propel us into action.
Emotions serve as an internal road map, guiding our behavior and helping us realize when something feels right. As with other complex emotions, we can use our experiences of regret to guide both our thoughts and our behavior.
Feelings of regret about our past actions can direct us into an improved way of behaving and treating others as well as ourselves. Regretting a harsh statement can cause us to choose our words more carefully in the future. Our regrets engender a sense of empathy and allow us to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, imagining how our actions might impact others.
Without regret, we would continue placing ourselves in potentially harmful or dangerous situations without realizing that we should be making changes. For example, when I eat an entire $3.99 bag of potato chips in one sitting, my stomach hurts and I regret that decision. As a result of that regret, I decide I am not going to engage in that behavior again. Of course, after a sufficient amount of time has passed (and my feelings of regret have subsided), I might buy more potato chips. But this time, instead of eating the entire bag, I eat only half.
Even if regret does not entirely eliminate particular behaviors, it can at least help us reduce the potential for harm. Regret lingers as a reminder to make sure that the lessons we learn are not forgotten.
When does regret become too much of a bad thing? Remaining in a space of continual regret by mentally replaying our past failings can contribute to feelings of guilt, shame, and depression. If the experience and intensity of regret is so great that it begins to negatively impact the way we see ourselves or the world, then speaking with a counselor or therapist might be a good way to make sense of the regret and find ways to create a more positive frame of mind.
It is unrealistic to suggest that living a life without regret is possible. As much as we may try to avoid feelings of regret, there will be times when we hurt someone else’s feelings, make a mistake in a relationship, or stay too long in a situation that is not serving us. And when that happens, regret actually becomes useful. It is regret that serves as a reminder to not make the same mistakes over and over.
Regret as a Call to Action
Perhaps a better way of understanding the phrase “No regrets” is to think of it as a reminder to not allow anxiety and fear to dominate your journey. Regret can serve as a welcome challenge to do the things that scare you. We sometimes miss out on things that are rewarding because we allow our fears to prevent us from taking action. Perhaps there is an area in your life where you are holding back. Are you setting yourself up to experience regret?
Is there something you can do today to rectify a situation that makes you feel regretful? If so, you are using regret in a positive way to spark a move toward closure or to heal a damaged relationship.
Regret is the feeling that lets us know when we are not happy with our own behavior. Perhaps that’s the hardest part about experiencing regret. As we force ourselves to look at where we have behaved regretfully, we don’t always like what we see.
But remember that seeing who we were does not mean we must always be that way. The experience of regret is what helps us make and sustain these types of changes.
So the next time you find yourself wallowing in a sea of regrets, allow the life preservers of change and new possibilities to envelop you. If having excessive feelings of regret is a challenge, ask yourself what you’ve learned from those experiences, and what you can do differently in the future. And if you wish to avoid experiencing regret in the future, are there places in your life where fear and anxiety is impeding your progress?
What’s your biggest regret? Or better yet, what are you gonna do about it?
This article appears in the July 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.