What you can learn from regret

What you can learn from regret

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Forming a healthy relationship with regret means learning to look it in the face.

When Peter and Sjanna Leighton were in their early 20s, their marriage fell apart. Money was tight, and they each feared they were disappointing the other; neither one knew how to communicate their vulnerabilities and hurt.

So one day, almost a year after their vows, Peter packed his bags and moved out of their home in San Antonio, Texas. He got an apartment on his own and focused on building his career in the restaurant business.

“From the outside world, it may have looked like I’d recovered from our marriage failing,” says Peter, who became chronically depressed. “But the memories of how powerful our togetherness could have been, and what could have happened if we had continued developing — all of that churned in me.”

Peter and Sjanna both quietly carried their regret over giving up on their relationship through other marriages, children, and divorce. Then in 2007, 33 years later, Sjanna searched Peter’s name online and found his photography website. “The first photo that came up was a picture of him that he’d taken in our bathroom when we were married, and the second picture was me on our honeymoon, which he had titled ‘The Muse,’” says Sjanna. She realized that he lived in Austin, not far from her, and after a few weeks, she built up the courage to send him an email. They met up for coffee. When they met up a second time a few weeks later, she asked him, “What happened with us, Peter?” He replied, “I don’t know, but you were the love of my life.” Within a month of reconnecting, they were dating again.

Today, at 75 and 72 years old, Peter and Sjanna have been happily remarried for 16 years. “When we got back together, we did it with our regrets and our perceived mistakes,” says Peter. “Because of that, when there have been storms, we’ve been able to weather them.”

Few people have a second chance the way Peter and Sjanna did, but most of us live with regrets. We may not own up to them (maybe not even to ourselves), but we all have past actions we wish we could change — bullying a middle school classmate, not telling a loved one how much they meant to us, choosing a safe job rather than taking a creative risk — yet we rarely reckon with this universal feeling or recognize how it can benefit us. Since we can’t change the past, regret can seem useless and self-indulgent. But the emotion can clarify a disconnect between who we are and who we want to be. And it can show us how to change.

What causes regret

“There are three pieces to regret,” says Amy Summerville, a research scientist who has led studies on the emotion. “One, it feels bad; two, it’s based on a thought about how things could have been better; three, the thought is focused on your own actions.” In other words, if you feel bad after acing an interview and not getting the job, that’s not regret; if you feel bad because you stayed up late playing video games and slept through the interview, that could be.

According to Summerville, the most common regrets come from career and romance. As people age, entering their 60s and 70s, family and health start to come up as regrets, too, but romantic regret remains consistent through life stages.

She has also found that regrets of inaction are more common than regrets of action. In other words, we tend to regret the things we didn’t do rather than the things we did. “Human memory adaptively functions to remind us of open things on our to-do list, rather than things we’ve crossed off,” says Summerville, “which might mean that we have a better memory for unmet goals and they persist longer.”

Another factor: When we think about the path we didn’t take, we only imagine the dreamy positives, overlooking the mundane details and inevitable disappointments. It’s harder to regret choices we actually made since they led to so many other specifics. “With action regrets, you can find a silver lining, but with inaction regrets, you can’t do that,” says Daniel Pink, author of The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. It’s easy to regret not running away with that glamorous stranger at 22 since you don’t see the fights and heartbreak. It’s trickier to regret an unhappy marriage if it also led to wonderful kids.

Placing regret in context

If you’re reckoning with regret, first, be kind to yourself — and realistic. It’s easy to imagine acting differently if we could do it all over with what we know now, but we didn’t yet have that experience. “If you’re middle-aged, with kids and a mortgage, it’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t I take a year off and go live in Europe after college?’” says Summerville. “But if you really think about yourself after graduation, with student loans and family pressure to get a career, you remember how you did have responsibilities and stressors then.”

It’s important to contextualize the emotion within your setting, too, especially if you live in a community that highly values personal choice and responsibility. “When we talk about how ‘people’ feel regret, we’re largely talking about how white Americans and Western Europeans experience it,” says Summerville. More collectivist cultures can turn down the inner spotlight on our personal choices: An arranged marriage or raising kids within the family compound can take away some of the pressure around finding your individual path. Some religions also provide established rituals for making sense of regret, like Catholic confession or Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. But in the US, people are taught that life is what we make it as individuals — so if something goes wrong, it’s a catastrophe and it’s our fault.

Come clean about regret

The first step toward coming to terms with your regrets is owning up to them, which can be tough. “In the US, we’ve over-indexed on positivity,” says Pink, who has led surveys that documented thousands of regrets within the US and across the world. “We tend to think that the path to a life well-lived is to be positive all the time and never negative, to look forward and never look back.” When he started talking to others about regret in midlife, Pink says he felt sheepish, expecting them to disengage from the conversation. He found the opposite: Everyone else had regrets, too, although they often felt like they weren’t supposed to voice them.

When Sjanna Leighton got back together with Peter in her 50s, it eased some of her sadness about the end of their marriage. But as they fell in love, rediscovering the joys of their relationship, she also felt acute regret: What if they had been vulnerable with each other in their 20s and stuck it out? What would their shared life have looked like through their 30s and 40s, as partners and parents?

“When we got back together, I felt safe and acknowledged, like he accepted me for who I was, which was an extraordinary feeling,” she says. “It also made me really sad. I wished we’d stayed together, that we had understood each other better.”

Let that regret inform your life

At first, Sjanna found that regret painful. But as she and Peter have sustained a happy second marriage to each other, she’s realized how the emotion informs her current relationship, which is full of gratitude, compassion, and wonder. “We’d both had difficult marriages and had kids, and know how precious it is to have someone that loves you for who you are,” she says. Sometimes she still thinks about the lifelong relationship that could have been, but when she sees couples her age bickering or bored with each other, she feels grateful that she and Peter never take each other for granted. “We’ve had some things happen that are difficult, but at the end of the day, there’s nowhere we’d rather be than beside each other,” says Sjanna.

If we let it, regret can clarify how to live: How is our life misaligned with our values? How do we want to act differently in the time we have left? “It can help us become clearer thinkers, better problem solvers, and better at finding meaning in life,” says Pink. “Some of us ignore regret; others wallow, but what we should be doing is confronting our regrets, using them as data and information.”

For example, say you’re 60 years old and regret that you stayed in a lackluster job rather than starting your own business. First, instead of feeling contempt for your younger self, treat yourself with kindness and curiosity. Place your choices in context: What were the reasons you stayed in this job? What were the pressures and unknowns you faced at the time? Remember, this choice is only one small part of who you are; think about some of the choices you made that make you feel proud.

Next, analyze. What can you learn about yourself from this regret? For the 60-year-old, a lesson might be that with the security and clarity of age, you value boldness and risk-taking more than you used to. You can work with that. Maybe you start a creative side hustle, or mentor young people, or take on a leadership role in a group at the library.

“You’re trying to look backward in order to move forward,” says Pink. “You can’t undo what you did, but you can use that piercing negative feeling as a signal about what you value, and a north star for guiding the rest of your life.”

Remember to give yourself grace

Reckoning with regret often feels painful and scary. If you admit to wishing you had acted differently, then you’re admitting your imperfections. You’re not someone who lives with “no regrets,” a glib success who never fails. But when you release yourself from the false binary of being a success or a failure, you’re free to live in a more thoughtful, informed way, one shaped by an understanding of your strengths and values. It’s never too late to learn from your regrets and use them to shape who you want to be today: If you wish you had taken English classes seriously in college, ask your friends about their favorite books and put together your own syllabus from their recommendations. If you regret the nights you spent working late while your kids were young, talk to them about how you’d like to build a closer relationship with them (and maybe their kids) now. Owning your regret is vulnerable, but it’s the best way to avoid accumulating more regrets in the future.

Sjanna and Peter still have arguments and tense periods in their marriage. But unlike in their 20s, they know how to work through it — and that their relationship is worth it. “Part of the regret we both carry with us is that we weren’t ready,” says Peter. “Now, we are.”

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