“It’s better to do and regret rather not”, wrote Giovanni Boccaccio. However, the truth is that there are as many types of regret as there are people. We have all thrown ourselves into the arms of counterfactual thinking, imagining how things would have gone if we hadn’t been paralyzed, if we hadn’t been silent, if we hadn’t been so distracted/absent/busy?
And it is that living implies making decisions practically at every moment, so that it is difficult to escape the clutches of regret when looking back. Between the mistakes, the opportunities we miss, and the words that are not said or badly said, there are an infinity of situations that give shape to that deep and disturbing feeling that we call regret.
Regret, a feeling with lights and shadows
Regret occurs when the result is not what we expected. It is difficult for us, feeling happy and satisfied with our current life, to dedicate ourselves to continually delving into the past in search of mistakes and alternative paths.
In fact, unlike disappointment, regret is deeply tied to guilt over our decisions. That means it can also be very dangerous, consuming us in the slow fire of recriminations.
However, despite the fact that regret is usually covered in a negative halo, the truth is that it is not without its positive aspects.
Although it can be an extremely intense and powerful feeling that pulls us down, it can also prompt us to make amends or even make a radical change in our lives that helps us get closer to the person we want to be or to the point where we want to be.
In fact, studies have shown that when we think about what we regret not doing in the past, we tend to make better decisions later in life because regret promotes learning.
When it is intense, it also helps us to deepen the meanings. That is to say, it motivates us to clarify the purpose of our life and orient ourselves towards those things that we consider most important and significant.
How many kinds of regret are there? From the most common regrets to the most painful
82% of people look back often on their lives and wish they had done things differently at a certain point. Only 1% say they do not feel sorry for anything. These are the conclusions of the largest study carried out so far on this feeling, which also revealed the existence of 4 major types of regret:
1. Fundamental Regrets
This kind of regret is linked to the essential aspects of our lives, such as education, health, relationships or our finances. It appears when we believe that we are not acting consciously and responsibly enough. These regrets originate when we realize that we made bad decisions in the past that are affecting our present.
To avoid falling into the toxic loop that this type of regret can generate, it is important to remember that we do not have a time machine to go back. It seems like a platitude, but what’s done is done. Instead, we have the present and the future ahead of us with the possibility of making new and better decisions so as not to make the same mistakes again.
2. Missed opportunities
Throughout life we are presented with different opportunities. Every time we make a decision, what we do is choose one path, discarding the others. However, many times we are too scared or comfortable in our comfort zone and we decide not to act, letting those occasions pass. Over time, those missed opportunities can become a great source of regret.
Like Boccaccio, most psychologists agree that we are generally more likely to repent for not doing than for daring. Therefore, if from time to time we think “if I had dared to take that risk?…”, it is better that we get down to work and instead of looking at the past longing for what was not, we look at the present to detect the new opportunities around us. It is probable that that train will not pass again, but others will do.
3. Moral regrets
Within the different types of regret, this category contains those moments in which we had the possibility to decide and we did not act guided by our values. Although they only represent 10% of the total regrets in life, they are usually the most painful on a personal level since they represent a blow to our self-image.
In fact, although on time we rationalize certain decisions, there are choices that we know, deep down, are wrong. Obviously, this is an insidious type of regret because jeopardizes our “self” and leaves us in a bad position before our worst judge: ourselves. In that case there is not much we can do: we simply have to learn to forgive ourselves and give ourselves a second chance. We are not perfect and we may have made unjustifiable decisions, but the “self” of the past does not have to define our present “self”. We need to focus our energy more on the person we want to be, than on the person we were.
4. Relationship regrets
In life we are accompanied by significant people who give us happiness and play a fundamental role in our sense of identity, from our partner and parents to siblings or friends. Neglecting the bond with those people can lead to regret. Interestingly, these types of regrets made up the largest category. That means that we feel bad and we regret broken, distant or conflicting relationships. We usually think things like “if I had been by his side” or “if I had understood him”.
These kinds of regrets can be “closed-door” regrets, where we are unable to change circumstances, leaving a deep and permanent sense of loss. However, there are also “open door” regrets where we can still do something to repair the relationship. To avoid falling into meaningless recriminations that lead to the sense of guilt, the ideal is to focus on the relationships that we can save and enrich.
Pink, D. (2022) The Power Of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. Nueva York: Riverhead Books.
McCormack, T. et. Al. (2020) Regret and Decision-Making: A Developmental Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 29(4): 10.1177.
Sandberg, T. & Hutter, R. (2016) Testing the role of action and inaction anticipated regret on intentions and behaviour. Br J Soc Psychol; 55(3):407-25.
Towers, A. et. Al. (2016) What Makes for the Most Intense Regrets? Comparing the Effects of Several Theoretical Predictors of Regret Intensity. Front. Psychol; 10.3389.