When we first went into lockdown two years ago, I had some big plans for this change of pace. Work projects, renewing hobbies, reading more. Little of that has happened. What do I do with my regret? It nags at me.
Too Much Netflix
There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal recently about regrets.
The essence of the piece is that when we look honestly at our regrets, we can learn from them and so have a chance to change our behavior; and thus, possibly reduce future regrets in general – and, hopefully, at least have fewer regrets of the same kind.
The article was an excerpt from Daniel Pink’s new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.
This approach is in sharp contrast to the popular credo of living life with no regrets and no looking back.
The perspective is that by facing something that is uncomfortable now – and granted, regret feels lousy — we can be more consciously intentional about future choices.
It brings to mind transforming the acronym FEAR – from Forget Everything and Run – to Face Everything And Recover
Taking personal inventory is hardly a new idea. It’s a practice that is integral to many centuries-old religions.
In fact, some of my clients take a few minutes every evening to do a brief review of their day.
It gives them a chance to assess what went well and what could have gone better, with the intention of acknowledging the positives and learning from the negatives.
Daniel Pink proposes a three-step approach to turn regret from a negative into a positive.
It requires a mix of honesty, courage, and humility.
1. Reframe Your Regret – He warns of soothing oneself with false self-esteem or beating oneself up. Instead, be intentional and bring self-compassion to bear. Basically, imagine how you would treat a good friend in a given situation and try to be that way with yourself.
2. Disclose Your Experience – There are a few approaches to this. One is to share with another what we are thinking. This speaks to the idea that a problem shared is a problem halved. He cautions not to avoid this out of pride because it is actually through our vulnerability that we connect.
Another approach is to gain some clarity around the regret by writing it down or speaking into a voice recorder. This seems to me to be a way of taming free-floating anxiety. Pink says that research has found that by using language we organize our thoughts and so move from amorphous uncertainty to a more concrete assessment, which is easier to handle, even if it is negative.
3. Extract a Lesson – For best results, be intentional in gaining some objectivity. One approach is to imagine how you would evaluate someone else’s situation.
For another, a study showed people sharpened their reasoning by shifting to third person pronouns when discussing their challenges.
Time can also insert some distance and deliver a perspective more conducive to learning lessons. Ask yourself what would you advise a best friend and then take your own advice.
And, try as we may, feeling regret is inevitable. Studies have shown it is a hard-wired part of being human. In fact, one study of college undergrads and married couples found regret to be the most common negative emotion and the second most common overall, after love.
Some common regrets include: wishing we stayed in touch with friends more; letting ourselves be happier; caring too much what others think; not daring to take risks; not traveling enough. And, the list goes on.
The general theme is much more about regretting letting a pitch go by without swinging instead of trying and failing.
The good news here is that we really can have more of what we want. By facing the inevitable personal disappointments we all experience, we can increase our chances of a more fulfilling personal future.
There are always more at bats.