Sitting Well with Regret

One of my new favorite things to listen to while I am running (btw, I’m humbly/happily on target to be able to contribute my leg of the relay in the upcoming Manitoba Marathon with the Bergen and Associates Counselling team) is a podcast from NPR radio which repackages a few TED talks into a group and interviews the speakers in a more intimate setting.

I really appreciated hearing Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk on regret. I love how she talks about danger of “drinking the cultural Koolaid” suggesting that we explain and rationalize away our regrets, and essentially don’t allow regret to exist in our lives.

By working to eliminate regret from our lives, we miss opportunities to learn from our experiences and grow, and to do better.

By focusing disproportionately on our regrets, we end up bitter and shamed, and too discouraged/humiliated to re-emerge as people capable of contributing more positively to the lives of the ones we love.

Stuck in the shame based loop of self hatred over what’s been done is an awful place to be.

Kathryn says, “So if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret but with it.”

She goes on to say:

Regret is the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something better in the past.

  1. It requires agency… we had to make a decision in the first place.
  2. Second it requires imagination…we need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice and then we need to be able to spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how things would be playing out in our present.

The more we have these things…the more agency and the more imagination with respect to a given regret…the more acute that regret will be.

Research demonstrates that the biggest sources of regret are around education (not furthering it, not working hard enough at it, not capitalizing on opportunities, etc.), career (choice, career path, etc.), romance, and parenting. Surprisingly, people rarely list financial decisions as something that produces significant regret (which may be instructive to those of you who are agonizing about which mutual fund to purchase, what length of term to sign for the mortgage renewal coming up, etc.)


Schulz describes the characteristics of regret as follows:

  1. Denial “Make it go away”
  2. Bewilderment…”How could I have done that?”
  3. Punishment…”I could kick myself”
  4. Perseveration…repeatedly focusing on the object of regret as an infinite loop (and saying the above phrases in various iterations over and over and over and over)

It’s hard to desperately want to roll the clock back and do things differently…and simply not be able to. To watch the unrolling of our choices/errors and to live with them…to see how they affect others and ourselves…that’s simply painful.

Hindsight is 20/20…and so we judge ourselves in the past based on our current knowledge and how things actually rolled out…a little unrealistic and harsh, it would seem.
Thanx Kathryn, for your wisdom!

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