How to deal with and avoid regret
Looking back at your career so far, what do you regret? Some people regret not having started on their current professional path at an earlier age. Perhaps you regret not having passed a particular exam. Maybe you regret not having taken a challenging job – or you regret that you did accept a job that turned out to be an unhappy experience.
Psychologists define regret as a negative emotion involving self-blame, usually occurring when people either realise or imagine that their present situation would have been better had they done something differently in the past. Thankfully, psychological science tells us that it is possible to deal more effectively with past regrets and, perhaps, even avoid some future ones.
Re-evaluating past regrets
Studies show that older people are typically less bothered by regret. This is possibly because they are better at re-evaluating decisions and thinking more positively about what actually happened as opposed to what might have happened.
Psychologists refer to this skill as reappraisal. People who are better at reappraisal tend to agree more strongly with statements such as ‘I looked at things from a different perspective’ and ‘I changed the way I was thinking about the situation’.
Here are two tactics for re-evaluating or reappraising a regret:
- Compare your situation against those of people who are less well off than you. Psychologists call this process ‘downward social comparison’. By considering others who do not have your privileges or luxuries, you may help yourself to cope more effectively with regret. Studies show that younger people tend to benefit more by making downward social comparisons with people they personally know rather than people in general.
- Use a technique called ‘benefit finding’ to identify positives that might have come about from your situation. Perhaps a failure or setback has now made you more motivated and determined. Maybe your current situation has allowed you to acquire certain skills that you might not otherwise have learned.
Dealing self-compassionately with past regrets
Thinking repeatedly about regrets can, for certain people, lead to unhelpful levels of self-criticism and harm to their mental health. However, this is not always the case: regrets can sometimes act as a catalyst for self-improvement.
Researchers Jia Wei Zhang and Serena Chen at the University of California, Berkeley have found that adopting an attitude of self-compassion may reduce lingering regrets. For example, people who embraced a self-compassionate mindset were more likely to agree with statements such as ‘I am committed to not repeating this regret [or anything like it] again’ and ‘I have grown as a person as a result of this regret’.
In order to process mentally your regrets from a more self-compassionate point of view, try this short writing exercise:
- When you have time to think about your life in a calm and unhurried fashion, prepare to spend five minutes writing a letter addressed to yourself.
- Begin by thinking back to a major regret, something that is bothering you.
- Now, write a brief letter to yourself from a compassionate and understanding perspective. Imagine the kinds of comments, observations and advice that your warmest, kindest friends or family members might say to you about this past situation.
- Write the letter from a second-person perspective. For example, if I [Rob Yeung] were writing a self-compassionate letter to myself, I would start the letter by writing ‘Dear Rob…’ and then perhaps further sentences such as ‘You should…’, ‘In retrospect, you now probably realise that…’, and so on.
Understanding different types of regret
People’s regrets can be to do with either action (ie things that we did but wish we had not done) or inaction (ie things that we did not do but wish we had done). For example, an employee who regrets having said something aggressive to a colleague would be said to have an action regret. Another person who regrets not having studied for their qualifications at a younger age would have an inaction regret.
Researchers led by Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich have found that regrets to do with action are generally intense immediately but fade in intensity fairly quickly. Regrets of inaction may initially seem less painful but can linger and endure for much longer. In other words, most people in the long run regret opportunities they wished they had taken rather than things they actually did.
In order to avoid having long-lasting regrets later in life then, remember that most people regret inaction rather than action: it is often better to try and fail than not try at all. For example, if you are considering accepting a tough but rewarding job, you may one day be more likely to regret not having taken it than taking it and then wishing otherwise. Or, if you would like to start your own business in the future, consider that it’s more likely you might regret not doing it than doing it and having it not turn out well.
Consider more rather than fewer options
When making important decisions about your career, it can sometimes feel as if you only have two choices. For example, if you have been offered a new job, you may think that you can only either take it or turn it down.
However, there may often be other options. For instance, in considering a new job, another option might be to ask for more thinking time before making your decision. Yet another option might be to ask the employer whether you can spend an afternoon at their offices meeting two or three members of the team. Alternatively, you might enquire about the possibility of having several one-on-one meetings with members of the team in an informal setting outside of the office.
Research led by a team of economists suggests that considering more options may reduce feelings of regret associated with having made a decision. Studies led by Andreas Mojzisch at the University of Hildesheim in Germany found that participants in their experiments who were specifically asked to generate three options typically experienced less regret than participants who were not asked to generate further options. However, participants who generated six options experienced even less regret.
So, try to avoid feeling trapped by decisions – as if there is only the choice to do something or not do it. By being creative and aiming to generate a half-dozen alternatives, you may make better choices and help yourself to experience less dissatisfaction with whatever you eventually do.
Spending money on the things that matter
Most people work hard in their careers so that they can buy the things they need or want in life. But it turns out that some purchases may be associated with more regret than others.
Imagine that you have saved enough money to make one of two purchases. You can either take a modest holiday to a country you have always wanted to visit, or you can buy several new kitchen appliances to replace older but still functional appliances that you already own. Whichever purchase you make would be for pleasure – you are not in desperate need of either the vacation or the kitchen equipment. Which would you choose?
Buying a holiday, going for a meal with friends or spending money on cinema tickets are examples of experiential purchases. The buyer receives an experience that generates memories but no physical goods at the end of it. In contrast, buying kitchen appliances, new clothes or devices such as a new smartphone or TV are examples of material purchases.
Research by psychologists suggests that the regret associated with experiential versus material purchases is mostly predictable. When buying material goods, people are more likely to regret the action of having bought material goods than to regret the inaction of not having bought them. When buying experiential goods, people are more likely to regret the inaction of missing out on experiences than the action of having pursued those experiences.
These studies have clear implications for anyone who does not have the money to buy both. When considering an experience versus a material good, pay for the experience. You are more likely to regret not having had an experience than to regret not having bought material possessions.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace