Letting Go of Regrets
Regretting the past is something that we all know we shouldn’t do – and that we all know is pointless – and yet we all still also have a tendency to do it.
Unfortunately, regretting mistakes is something that is largely out of our control. We are programmed you see to learn from mistakes because in the wild it would have helped us to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. We regret touching fire pretty much as soon as we try it, and thus we are very unlikely to the same thing twice.
But in our evolutionary history our mistakes had a tendency to be much more clear-cut and avoidable in the future. The mistakes we make today tend to be more complicated and dwelling on them tends to be less useful.
Let’s take that guy or girl you liked ten years ago for instance.
They were giving clear hints of interest and wanted you to make a move, but you were too shy. You’ve moved on since then and you’re happily in a new relationship, but it doesn’t stop you from regretting that past mistake. Which is really just a bit infuriating.
Likewise, you might have made a mistake in your career once. Maybe you lost an important document which lost the company thousands and that led to you being demoted. Or maybe you made a mistake when you shouted at your friend in haste. These are mistakes you can’t ‘undo’ and that you knew were wrong at the time – no future victory is going to erase them and they’ll keep playing over and over again in your head until you go mad.
Or will they?
Do Regrets Fade With Time?
If you’re reading this chapter, it’s probably because you’re struggling with some regret whether it was a small recent mistake or a big screw-up, then you’re probably hoping that I’m going to tell you it goes away. I wish I could, but unfortunately, I regret to say that the evidence isn’t quite so clear-cut.
According to one study by Gilovich et al., published in Psychological Review, some regrets will heal over time, but others will be less likely to.
That’s because there are two types of regret: regrets of commission and regrets of omission. Regrets of the commission are regrets about things you did, while regrets of omission are regrets about things you did not do.
Guess which ones we regret for the longest time?
That’s right – we regret the things we don’t do for longer and in the fact, those regrets tend never to heal (though I can think of at least one example in my personal history that largely goes against that).
This seems like a clear message to ‘grab life by the horns as it were and to ‘do more stuff, but again it’s probably a little more
complicated than that…
That Which Has Been Done…
The first thing I noticed when thinking about this study was that chances you didn’t take tend to be easier to rectify than those you did. ‘That which has been done, cannot be undone, and yet ‘that which is not done may yet be done. In other words, if you’re regretting not doing something still… then an obvious solution is to simply do it now. Pick up the phone and get talking to the one that got away!
The other point to consider is that the whole concept of ‘paths not taken’ is one that is somewhat arbitrary at best. The reason we regret the things we don’t do most is no doubt because we never find out. We have an idealized version of how those things would have turned out in our heads so we regret not living that possible reality. Meanwhile, the things we did do we got to see in the cold light of day – thus they tend to be considerably less interesting.
Let’s say you always wanted to move to Australia as a child. You choose not to because you are afraid, you don’t have the money, you think it’s unwise, etc. and thus you spend the rest of your years wondering what it would have been like and regretting your decision not to.
You may have done many other miraculous things in your life – whether that’s getting married and having children, being there to support your family, or winning the Nobel Peace Prize… the problem is that you know what that was like and it was imperfect. Thus the ‘undone’ things always seem more interesting. Likewise the mistakes you make you live through and so you decide they could never have been that bad.
And what you also must realize is that it’s actually completely required that you do turn down some of what life has to offer. Very often in order to experience one thing we must necessarily turn down something else. There are billions of options open to you every single second and yet you will always just choose one of them. That’s an infinite undone-to-done ratio.
This might sound depressing – as though you’ll never be happy with what you decide – and it’s very much a case of ‘the grass is always greener. But in reality, what I’m saying is that the grass always seems greener on the other side. It’s not, and what you’ve done is probably perfectly remarkable and worthwhile in its own right: you just have to learn to see that.
But Will it Pass?
If you can reframe the way you look at your roads ‘untaken’ then, you might find that you can overcome that feeling of regret. But would they fade over time as time went on even if you never managed this, or does the study prove that they will never go away?
To be honest, the research seems to suggest that our regrets won’t completely fade – and particularly when they’re related to
things we didn’t do.
But I heard a nice way of looking at this recently when watching VSauce on YouTube. In an episode titled ‘Mistakes’ (get it?) the presenter Michael paraphrases a friend of his. That friend told him that past mistakes were like carvings in a tree. They don’t grow with the tree – they don’t even get higher. Nor do they tend to fade and in fact in some cases, they can get darker.
However, while the marks don’t change, the tree does and over time it grows to become significantly huger leaving the marks as a
relative ‘dot’ in the bark. In other words, the carving that once took up a big proportion of the tree is now just a tiny mark on a huge tree – just a very small part of that tree’s history.
Your mistakes are similar. They might not go away, but as you build on them and have more experiences you will find that you can bury them. They’re a part of who you are and actually, you shouldn’t want that any other way – however, they are an increasingly insignificant part of who you are. The key is to accept them and grow anyway.