PSY­CHE

The up­side of re­gret.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Leah Ru­mack

There isn’t al­ways a rea­son to re­gret feel­ing... re­gret­ful.

IT’S NUM­BER 33 on the Proust Ques­tion­naire, a fa­mous series of ques­tions whose an­swers are said to re­veal your true na­ture. Right be­fore “How would you like to die?” (not by shark) and con­sid­er­ably after “What is your great­est ex­trav­a­gance?” (um, man­i­cures?) is the most painful one of all: “What is your great­est re­gret?” There, with one an­swer, is ev­ery­thing you wish you’d done or all the things you wish you hadn’t. Re­gret hurts, and it’s one of the most com­mon hu­man emo­tions.

Hu­mans have, of course, al­ways ex­pe­ri­enced re­gret. What would a Shake­spearean tragedy be with­out it? But to­day, in com­par­i­son to our grand­moth­ers—or even our mothers—women in the West­ern world have more choice than ever be­fore. If Bubbe could have been a nurse, teacher or sec­re­tary un­til she got mar­ried, now the world—the­o­ret­i­cally, any­way—is our oys­ter bar, which leaves us with a lot more chances to re­gret not hav­ing pur­sued the pasta spe­cial in­stead.

It doesn’t help that, thanks to so­cial me­dia, there’s a re­lent­less, real-time high­light reel avail­able of the roads not trav­elled. The win­dow into your seem­ingly end­less op­tions—ca­reers, par­ties, part­ners, va­ca­tions, shoes— can be si­mul­ta­ne­ously par­a­lyz­ing and de­mor­al­iz­ing. You can only pick one path, after all. “More choices can mean more pos­si­ble thoughts about what might have been,” says Amy Sum­merville, an as­so­ciate psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Mi­ami Univer­sity and di­rec­tor of the Re­gret

Lab there. This is known as “choice over­load” and can leave peo­ple less sat­is­fied with their de­ci­sions and even push us into mak­ing the wrong ones.

Women es­pe­cially are con­stantly en­cour­aged to #livetheirbestlife (no pres­sure), but what if you want all the best lives? Or at least the ones that in­clude you loung­ing in a dis­tressed tee on the per­fect grey pouffe that you just bought in Por­tu­gal? “Try­ing to find the per­fect ‘some­thing’ is as­so­ci­ated with feel­ing more re­gret,” says Sum­merville of how so­cial me­dia may ex­ac­er­bate this stress. “If my goal is to find the sin­gle best thing, if some­thing else is bet­ter in any way, sud­denly my de­ci­sion wasn’t good. It’s [no longer] enough to say ‘Hey, I’m hang­ing out with my friends and we’re hav­ing a good time’—now it’s ‘Could we have been hav­ing the most amaz­ing time?’”

While you’re try­ing to have The Most Amaz­ing Time, you’re si­mul­ta­ne­ously ha­rassed by in­spi­ra­tional cof­fee mugs and cover lines on celebrity tabloids to live with­out re­gret. From Édith Piaf singing “Non, je ne re­grette rien” to Demi Lo­vato’s an­themic “Sorry Not Sorry,” hav­ing zero dis­ap­point­ment in your choices is treated as the ul­ti­mate goal of win­ning at life. “When re­gret is talked about in pop­u­lar me­dia,” says Mike Mor­ri­son, an as­sis­tant psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at King’s Univer­sity Col­lege at West­ern Univer­sity in Lon­don, Ont., “peo­ple tend to be left with the im­pres­sion that it’s a sign of weak­ness, when ac­tu­ally re­gret can be help­ful to you in the long run.” RE­GRET: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE RUMINATIVE The key, says Mor­ri­son, is to use it as a learn­ing op­por­tu­nity to change what you’re do­ing or how you ap­proach sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions in the fu­ture. Hate that you never stand up for your­self? Re­mem­ber that the next time your first in­stinct is to shrink­ing-vi­o­let your way out of a con­flict. The re­search di­vides pretty evenly down the mid­dle on what peo­ple re­gret more: the things they haven’t done or the things they have done. But ei­ther way, re­gret is ac­tu­ally healthy. That is, un­til it’s not, like if you’re blam­ing your­self for things over which you ac­tu­ally had lit­tle or no con­trol. It’s what psy­chol­o­gists call (stay with us) “up­ward coun­ter­fac­tual think­ing.” Ba­sic­ally, this is an in­flated, not-re­ally-true idea that if only you had done some­thing dif­fer­ent in a given sit­u­a­tion (tried to find a new­fan­gled can­cer treat­ment for your sis­ter on the in­ter­net, been nicer to your nowju­ve­nile-delin­quent brother, not com­plained so much that your ex chewed his food loudly), ev­ery­thing would have turned out bet­ter. Spoiler alert: prob­a­bly not.

Re­gret can be an emo­tional red flag when it be­comes ruminative, adds Sum­merville. The word “ru­mi­nate” means “to think deeply,” but it also means “to chew the cud.” You know, that thing cows do: chomp away at the same morsel with­out get­ting any new nutri­tional value out of it. Ruminative re­gret—repet­i­tive, un­wanted and in­tru­sive thoughts—is as­so­ci­ated with de­pres­sion, al­though it’s not clear which comes first or if one causes the other. (In cases where re­gret is hav­ing a cor­ro­sive ef­fect on one’s men­tal health, ex­perts rec­om­mend talk­ing to a ther­a­pist about it.) RE­GRET AND AG­ING Re­gret also seems to linger “if it’s about some­thing where we feel that we still have op­por­tu­ni­ties to meet that goal,” says Sum­merville. Which means that re­gret changes as peo­ple age. Not only does the na­ture of re­gret align roughly with life stages— when you’re 21, you’re prob­a­bly not be­moan­ing the fact that you never had chil­dren, but you may al­ready be re­gret­ting that phi­los­o­phy de­gree—but the tenor of re­gret changes too, par­tic­u­larly as peo­ple get closer to the end of their lives and there are fewer chances to make changes. “A lot of re­grets go from be­ing fo­cused on ‘what I should have done dif­fer­ently’ to tak­ing the self out of the equa­tion,” says Sum­merville. “In­stead of say­ing ‘I re­ally re­gret that I wasn’t a car­ing par­ent to my kids,’ it’s ‘I re­ally wish my kids and I were closer.’ It’s pas­sive-voiced.” LET­TING IT GO As for that run-of-the-mill re­gret? How do you stop feel­ing bad about the pro­mo­tion you didn’t ap­ply for or the kid you didn’t have or the fight with your friend 10 years ago? “It’s not so much ‘Try to for­get about it,’” says Sum­merville. “Ask your­self what’s the big-pic­ture in­ten­tion you can draw—and then keep that les­son but let go of feel­ing bad. The re­gret has done its job.” “Find the sil­ver lin­ing,” adds Mor­ri­son. “Some­times what you re­gret to­day you can see as an op­por­tu­nity for per­sonal growth to­mor­row. And while you may feel like you’ve missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, bet­ter ones can come along.” When a door closes, a win­dow opens—hope­fully into a room with a fab­u­lous grey pouffe. ®

“Some­times what you re­gret to­day you can see as an op­por­tu­nity for per­sonal growth.”

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