You are walking down the street, having a good day, when suddenly you remember something you did 10 years ago — something you regret. How do you deal with that?
Should you dwell and ruminate on it? Should you let it go and never think of it again? Or, as today’s guest suggests, should you try to learn from it and move on? Join us as Robert Leahy, a pivotal figure in the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), explains the difference between productive and unproductive regret.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD, is Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City and Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Leahy is Associate Editor of the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy and is past president of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy, and the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. He is a recipient of the Aaron T. Beck Award from the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. Dr. Leahy is author or editor of 29 books for mental health professionals and the general public, including If Only and The Worry Cure. His books have been translated into 21 languages. https://www.cognitivetherapynyc.com/
Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Robert L. Leahy, PhD. Dr. Leahy was instrumental in disseminating the cognitive behavioral therapy model or CBT that is widely used by therapists today. He’s also the recipient of the R.A. Beck Award from the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and his latest book, “If Only. . .: Finding Freedom from Regret,” is out now. Dr. Leahy, welcome to the podcast.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Thank you, Gabe, for having me on. I hope it’s a good day for you.
Gabe Howard: Oh, I hope it’s a good day for you and for all of our listeners as well. And in fact, speaking of my listeners, I don’t know about them, but I win every argument after the fact in the shower. And when I say after the fact, I mean even years later. If only I had said this, if only I had done this, if only I had realized that these are the secrets to my string of after the fact shower victories. Am I alone in this rehashing of over and done with conflict, this ruminating on past failures? Or is this a common thing?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: I don’t think you’re alone, Gabe. I think it’s a universal phenomenon that we tend to replay things in our mind about how they could have done gone better, or we anticipate how things could go wrong or the options that we could have had. So, this is part of being human in one of the things I argue in my book, “If Only,” is that the ability to regret past decisions or to anticipate regret can actually be productive at times. It can be a useful emotion. Of course, it can be a disabling emotion, but you need to look at both, both parts of regret.
Gabe Howard: When I think about doing it, I just I think about what an utter waste of time it is because it’s over. And when I say years later, I think back to like high school breakups. You know, I’m almost 50 years old and I’m still trying to win an argument that I had with my high school girlfriend. It does this have any protective factor benefit whatsoever or is it just am I just helplessly stuck in the past trying to right wrongs that frankly, probably aren’t relevant anymore?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Right. So, what you’re describing is, is what I would call unproductive regret. You’re ruminating about it. There’s nothing that you can do to make it better. And hopefully you’ve learned from the experience and moved on to a better relationship. I think one one reason, the only reason to live in the past, as one person said, is that the rent was cheaper. But replaying old themes and stories from relationships that have been over for 30 years is not a very productive use of regret. I think a productive regret as something that I can learn from that I could use today. So, for example, if I if I eat spicy food late at night, I anticipate I’ll regret that because there won’t be able to get a good night’s sleep. That anticipation of regret might keep me from eating the spicy food. One of the things that they’ve done research on is actually trying to get people to anticipate regret about not taking their medication for hypertension. So, people who have high blood pressure, 50% of them a year later not taking the medication. That’s a real problem because if you don’t take your medications, a greater chance of stroke. So, in one study, they asked people to think about what it would be like if they were in a wheelchair or if they had paralysis on part of their body and this increased compliance in taking medication. So that’s an example of productive regret. You’re replaying issues and conversations and breakups from your youth is not productive.
Gabe Howard: I feel very validated when someone with a PhD who’s done a lot of research agrees with me. Right. I know that it’s not productive. I know that it’s not helping me. I’m just sort of stuck in this rut that I can’t get out of. Now, you know, my dog doesn’t seem to be dwelling on mistakes that he made in his puppyhood. It just seems like a very human thing to do, to regret these things that are frankly over with.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Yeah, it’s what it’s what some anthropologists or historians describe as the cognitive revolution in human evolution. It’s the ability to think about what could be, what’s called counterfactuals. So it could be that things could go wrong, could be things that didn’t go right. It’s about it’s able to think about the future and the different possibilities or to think about the past and the different possibilities in this facilitated probably by the emergence of language and communication about being able to describe things that could or could not happen. Whereas your cat, your dog, is actually kind of a Zen mindful creature. You know, they’re living in the they’re living in the present moment. You know what this smells like, what this looks like. I’ve always said that cats. Cats have only four cognitions, so they don’t end up having regrets or worries. The four cat cognitions are. This feels good. This doesn’t feel good. I want that. And what’s next?
Gabe Howard: You mentioned you said Zen and that that that really did pique my interest. And then you mentioned cats, which of course, the whole Internet loves cats and podcasts live on the Internet. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask a follow up question that had to do with cats and Zen. How do we become more Zen like our cats?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Uh, well, I think I think living in the present moment is good for some moments. Like, you know, I think I think about regret as having the right emotions to the right degree about the right thing at the right time. So, regrets. Anticipating regret about the future is not is not mindfulness of the present moment. It’s anticipating something that could happen that has not happened or thinking about what happened in the past, what could have happened. That’s not mindfulness. That’s not living in the present moment. Living in the present moment can be useful at times if you’re plagued by intrusive thoughts like, oh my God, this is the end of the world, or whatever it is. So sometimes grounding yourself in the present moment. But as one friend of mine said, the only creature who lives entirely in the present moment is a mosquito. So, you have to think about not only the present moment, the future, moments of the past moments. And I think this is the advantage and the curse of being a human being. Not all the abilities we have make us happy. But what they do is they make us have the capability of being able to pursue more possibilities. So, anticipating regret helps us anticipate risk, helps us anticipate losses that could occur in the future, helps us anticipate that we may not have enough food to last through a difficult time. And that can be very, very helpful. So, if you want to be a cat, you might be able to get a good night’s sleep and stay in the present moment and have a different diet. But it’s not going to be good for your career.
Gabe Howard: I can certainly understand that. And I’ve seen a lot of pictures of cats and kittens sleeping and they look like they don’t have a care in the world. They don’t. All of their needs are taken care of by others and that that is something that humans don’t have. But it’s an interesting thought to think about. How can we just be as chill and as Zen and as calm and arguably as happy as a cat. But I’ve never really seen cats achieve much. They’ve never they’ve never written a symphony or written a book or. It’s different. But people do compare. We like to personify our animals, right? We like to think, oh, how can I be, how can I be like them? But it’s probably apples and oranges. In fact, I know that it’s apples to oranges. I just I really like my animals, and I want to be like them. Is this something that gets people tripped up where they compare themselves not only to their animals, but also to others? They think that other people don’t have regrets. Other people don’t make mistakes.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Right.
Gabe Howard: Other people aren’t ruminating about this. I’m the only one
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Right.
Gabe Howard: Is this something that gives us extra stress, tension and fear?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Well, yeah. I mean, this is what I describe as a normal normalizing regret or jealousy or envy or resentment or boredom or ambivalence. You know, I’m sure you and everybody that, you know, we all have problems and problems are just simply part of being human. One of the problems that people have with, say, with regret is they think, I shouldn’t have these regrets and I have to get rid of them as opposed to having a strategy like asking, is this going to be a productive regret or unproductive regret? Am I going to learn something from it or am I wasting my time? Am I spending a little bit of time with it, or am I ruminating on it in my correcting myself and learning from my mistakes? Or am I just criticizing myself? So, we have to think about that, that these emotions evolve because they helped it. Regret helped us plan to the future. Regret helped us control our emotions and our behaviors so that we don’t act out in ways that will have negative outcomes. Regret in the form of guilt helped us repair relationships by apologizing and asking for forgiveness, or in the ability to give forgiveness for somebody who is guilty. So, these emotions are part of human nature, which has a lot of advantages and a lot of disadvantages.
Gabe Howard: In our culture, we have words like FOMO and YOLO. FOMO is fear of missing out.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: [Laughter] Right.
Gabe Howard: And, and YOLO is you only live once. Is are these just basically regret prevention strategies? Are doing things simply to prevent potential regret, a good strategy at all?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: This is a great question. Social media, I think, feeds into this with this kind of idealized world of people having great vacations, great relationships, great emotions. It’s what I call existential perfectionism. Like there is a world out there that I should be living where everything is wonderful and my job should be fulfilling. I should never be bored. My relationship should always be magnificent and all that kind of stuff. So, this kind of idealization sets you up for misery. You know, life. Life is filled with noise. It’s filled with positive things, negative things. It’s about tradeoffs and all of the emotions that we describe in the anxiety and sadness, depression, hopelessness and all that. These are emotions that come day to day when many, many people. So, this kind of fear of missing out or you only live once, if you look at the fear of missing out, everybody’s missing out on something every single moment of the day. I mean, you’re talking to me rather than talking to somebody else or playing with your dog or your kids or whatever. We’re always missing out on something.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Like, for example, one thing that that you often see people, they fall in love with somebody who’s married to somebody else and they think, oh, if I were with that person who’s married to somebody else with that person, my life would just be great. And so, what they do is they fantasize about what that life is going to be. And in the event that they actually end up with that person. It’s not going to turn out to be what the fantasy was because nothing in life turns out to be a fulfilled fantasy for very long. And so, this kind of existential perfectionism, which is part of our I think our current culture of narcissism, is something where we begin thinking, oh my God, I’m missing out on that perfect life that Susan or Ron or Judy or Tom has. So, this kind of like existential perfectionism actually ends up making you feel a sense of loss and deprivation in the life that actually is not too bad. You know, Americans are in terms of a large economy, whatever per capita, the richest people in the world ever. But people feel I don’t have enough. Not enough compared to what?
Gabe Howard: Somebody once told me that comparison was the death of happiness.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: And as I listened to you speak, it really does make a lot of sense. It’s like, well, I have a lot of things and I’m really happy. Well, but did you see what they had? Oh, you’re right. I’m miserable now.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Right, right.
Gabe Howard: Is this a form of regret? This this, this desperate need to compare? Like, I regret that I don’t have what I perceive that they have.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: What it is, is something that is going to contribute to your regret. I grew up poor and people, you know, oh, poor Bobby grew up poor. I’m not I’m not eulogizing poverty. But what I did learn from being poor is to be grateful for everything I have and also to be able to have empathy and compassion toward people who struggle economically. So, the social comparison thing, ideally what we tend to do is we tend to compare upwards. That’s what leads to envy and regret. Oh, you know, there are these people who are billionaires. They have their own jet and the whole thing. We seldom compare ourselves downwards. You often think, oh my God, that this person has so much more than I have. We don’t think about, well, how about the homeless person sitting on the street in the cold weather or the people in Ukraine who are being bombed on a regular basis? So, I think that this this sort of this this this this unfair social comparison I was comparing was always going to be somebody who has more. Always, always going to be somebody who has more, whose life seems more grand and fulfilling or interesting or famous, whatever. But so, what you think it’s interesting, Gabe, when you when they’ve looked at the regrets that people have as they anticipate dying people, you know, who are who are dying, they collected this information. They found that the regrets were I wish I had not spent as much time at work. I wish I had said told people I loved them. I wish I had kept contact with my friends. I wish I had allowed myself to be true to my emotions. None of them had to do with accumulating wealth or fame or power any of these things. So, it’s kind of like, ironically, the things that really matter in human happiness and human contentment are everyday things. Like, for example, Gabe, you told me before the before the broadcast that you have a backyard where you can run your dog. I’ll bet your dog is one of the major sources of happiness in your life. You know,
Gabe Howard: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: How many dogs and cats are there who are better than Prozac, right? Or you think about like being with your partner or being with your children or just simply having a moment where you you’re grateful about something. These are ways, I think, of grounding us in the true values that make us immune to regret. Regret is always about something could be better. Right. But, you know, everything could be worse.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Dr. Robert L. Leahy discussing his new book, “If Only . . .: Finding Freedom from Regret.” During our discussion, we’ve been talking a lot about regrets, but we’ve also been talking a lot about regrets and guilt as if they’re the same thing, but are regret and guilt the same thing? I asked specifically because I’ve always thought as guilt is a protective factor. After all, isn’t guilt how we keep from making the same mistakes over and over again? But regret seems deeper than that.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Well, all of this, everything that you’ve said is somewhat true that I think I think in our in our contemporary culture of feel good all the time and do your own thing, that guilt has got an unnecessarily bad name. So, here’s an example. Imagine if you were single, you’re in your late 20s and you’re looking for maybe a lifetime partner. And you meet this person, they tell you, you know, Gabe, I really like you, but I have to tell you that I’m incapable of any guilt or shame. I never feel guilt or shame. I just do what I want to do. Right. How likely are you to think you want this to be your lifetime partner? Or even a friend or a colleague? So, guilt has a can have a socially cohesive function. In other words, it can help us stay together. Because I know that my partner would feel guilty or ashamed if they did something that that violated the trust. In fact, the research shows that in offices and business environments, that if we know that somebody is capable of guilt, we tend to trust them more and we want to work with them. So, guilt, though, is not the same thing as regret. Guilt is regret on steroids. Like I can regret that I made a mistake on my taxes and I had to pay a penalty. I don’t feel guilty about it. I think it’s a stupid mistake.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: I had to pay a penalty. So, guilt is like a moralistic evaluation of myself that I’m a bad person. That was a bad thing to do and that I should feel guilty. I should feel bad about it. Now, having said this, I think that to some extent, yes, people should feel bad about violating the rights of other people. They should feel bad about it. They should feel guilty. But their guilt is not enough. Their guilt is a step to a next step. And the next step could be making restitution, making an apology, correcting your behavior, trying to make yourself a better person. We think about guilt as a final point as opposed to a step to the next step. And I always think that we need to think about our life as maybe the guilt. Maybe the mistake we made was one chapter in our lives. Maybe the next chapter is a different chapter where we become a better person and that could be the goal. How is this going to help me become a better person? How is this going to help me repair and rebuild the trust? How is this going to help me be a person that people will trust? The way to be the way to gain trust is to be trustworthy. And the way to be trustworthy sometimes is to have a sincere apology and the ability to apologize and to be convincingly superior. Convincingly sincere is a great, great asset for your relationships. I’m sure you know people who never apologize.
Gabe Howard: I do. I do indeed.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: You don’t want to be around those people. I mean, you may be, but you feel like something’s left out. Something’s left out. You feel like. Like. Well, yeah, they’re just justifying. They’re just saying to move on. They’re being dismissive of the injury, but it’s like. It’s like the. The play Death of a Salesman. You know, attention should be paid. We need to pay attention to what happened. We need to validate the injury that we caused. And I think I mean, nobody ever says, gee, I’m getting too much validation today. Right.
Gabe Howard: Very, very good point.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: People are hungry for validation. You know, when in doubt, validate. You know, if you if you have a conversation with a total stranger, if you validate everything, every emotion that they describe in the scene, that’s hard for you and that must be difficult. A lot of people would feel that way. Tell me more about the way it made you feel. You’re going to think you’re the greatest person in the world without knowing anything about you. And that’s because we’re all hungry for validation, because validation is like the mother looking in the eyes of the child who’s upset. It’s comforting. It’s fundamental. It’s part of human nature.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Leahy, thank you so much for being here. I do have to ask, before we leave, though, it seems like in some ways regret is good and in some ways regret is bad. And it reminds me of every fitness app I’ve ever downloaded or every, you know, food journal or diet and exercise where it says the key is moderation. And as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking, So the key here is to have regret in moderation. Am I on to something here? Because I really expected that the lesson was going to be regret is bad. Get rid of it, don’t waste time on it. And it just seems like our discussion has led me to a place where I think, huh, regret seems much more nuanced than I originally suspected.
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Well, thank you for that question, for all the other questions that you’ve asked. Here’s the way I look at it. I go back to Aristotle. And Aristotle described virtues like courage and self-control. These virtues were it’s not like you that you want to have courage where you just run into a machine gun and allow yourself to be mowed down. That’s being ridiculous and crazy and self-destructive. So, what he did is he looked at courage or or strength or any of the virtues. It’s to have, if we can use this to think about regret is to have regret about the right things. In the right way, at the right time. Expressed in the right way. So having regret about, oh, I made a mistake on my taxes ten years ago, I should criticize myself for the rest of my life. That’s not the right thing to be regretful for. And it’s not the right duration. It’s not the right way to express it. Having regret about causing harm to somebody and hurting their feelings, that’s the right thing to have regret about and to express it in terms of an apology and to ask for forgiveness and try to be a better person. So, it’s not simply moderation. That’s part of it. That’s part of Aristotle’s model of virtue, but it’s about the right things, having the right regrets, having the right regrets about hurting people, being unfair, being unkind, or whatever it would be, and expressing it in the right way to the right degree for the right amount of time. I feel that for a lot of regrets, there should be a statute of limitations. Like if you regret breaking up a relationship when you’re 18 years old. Well, I think that the statute of limitations probably expired a long time ago because, frankly, a relationship when you’re 18-year-old has an expiration date of 12 months.
Gabe Howard: I really like the idea of a statute of limitation on regret and guilt. I wish we could all codify that into some sort of agreed upon law. I think it would be better for our collective mental health. Dr. Leahy, thank you. Thank you once again for being here. I know that we can find your book on Amazon or wherever fine books are sold. Do you have a web presence? Where can folks find you?
Robert L. Leahy, PhD: Yeah. So, our website is CognitiveTherapyNYC.com. Cognitive therapy NYC dot com. And you can you can find me there along with other media information. But Gabe, I want to thank you for your very thoughtful and insightful, interesting questions. They actually made me think about these things in a way that was enjoyable for me.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Dr. Leahy, and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is on Amazon. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to a friend, a family member, a colleague and a support group on social media. Hell, send a text sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next time on Inside Mental Health.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at email@example.com. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.