“Think of regret as like looking in the rear view mirror when you’re driving. To drive forward well, we often use the rear view mirror; we do need to look backwards. That doesn’t mean that we… only look in the rear view mirror….Regret works the same way. It’s useful in moving us forward. ”
–Janet Landman, Ph.D.
Author of “Regret: The Persistence of the Possible”
Regret is fundamentally human. We have the ability to compare the actual to the possible; this means we risk regret. Far from being irrational or a waste of time, regret has transformative powers that help us to learn and change in positive ways.
Janet Landman, Ph.D., argues that regret serves many purposes — warning, instruction, mobilization and ethical behavior. She says that we are likely to have more problems in the long run by ignoring regret rather than by trying to figure out what it can tell us.
Regret, like grief, she says, is transformed by “working it through, which is lingering with it long enough to experience it deeply [both] emotionally and intellectually.”
What do People Regret?
Polls have shown that between 35 and 65 percent of people have some regrets. Following are some common themes of various surveys:
Education: The single most common regret, even in fairly well educated samples, is that they had not gotten enough schooling.
Work: Many wish they had chosen a different occupation, and many women say they wish they had pursued meaningful employment outside the home.
Marriage: Regrets range from wishing one had married earlier, later or to a different person, or not at all.
Family: If they had to do it over again, people say they would try to get along better with parents, siblings and children.
Getting older, habitually making hasty decisions, brooding, suffering from chronic emotional distress and coming from a particular culture all can predispose people to greater feelings of regret.
Are You a Thinker or a Feeler?
If you are a thinker who feels too little, you can use therapy to help you be less afraid of feeling. Learning to hold on to feelings like regret will help you understand what they have to teach you.
If you are a “feeler” — regularly making impulsive decisions without enough forethought — you instead should think before making decisions about what you might regret later.
Regret is almost unavoidable, says Landman, because we don’t really know what we want. Considering what is important to you when you make decisions may help you reduce regret. One use of your therapy sessions can be to explore what you are really seeking.