“With Deepest Regrets: The Mistakes of Your Past are the Key to Your Future”
written by a member of the class of 2022
Imagine a man. Not just any man, but an extremely skilled painter. He holds a palette in his hands and is able to create the likeness of reality on a canvas. His brush sweeps back and forth leaving behind images of rolling green hills dotted with tiny flowers that bud in the morning light. Towering mountains that just touch the clouds grace the background. It’s agorgeous scene, but suddenly he pauses. How could he have done this? He looks down and realizes he has begun to use the wrong colors, and the grass suddenly looks like a massacre recently occurred nearby. Rather than the peaceful pastel greens he had planned, the grass has become a sea of bright red. Many people in this position would probably become extremely frustrated, even acting out in anger. After all, hours of hard work have just been ruined in mere seconds. Negative thoughts and feelings may start to set in. How was I so careless? Why can’t I just get it right? You might begin to regret your own failure to recognize the mistake before it became so permanent. But why? What’s the big deal? This may be a simple example, but it shows the basic principle of what happens when we perceive something as lost, whether it be a painting or a relationship or an opportunity. Going through life, we must learn how to navigate these types of situations and feelings. Some might do that by ignoring the situation altogether, while others might confront it head-on. Regardless of your preferred approach, it’s hard to know where the “right” way lies or what will have the more beneficial outcome.
As a senior in high school, there are a lot of big decisions ahead of me, the biggest one being obvious: what am I going to do with the rest of my life? College decisions, picking a major, and the possibility of never seeing my childhood friends again make this question’s looming inevitability even heavier. Why are these decisions so hard? The answer seems pretty clear: because they’re important. I am deciding things that will literally affect the course of the rest of my life. What if I make the wrong decision? What if I end up regretting the path I chose to take in just a few short months? I am in a stage of life full of opportunities. I can do anything I want with the days ahead. The number of possibilities almost makes the decision worse because I will always wonder whether another choice might have worked out “better.” This type of thinking has overrun my brain the last few months, and I’m not the only one experiencing this. Big decisions like this take a tremendous amount of thought, and that little voice is always there in the back of my mind questioning every attempt I make.
Life is full of choices both big and small, so what do we do when things don’t turn out how we intended? What do you do with that feeling of failure when you realize you should have made a different choice? When your painting becomes a sea of red? I’m sure we’ve all experienced this whether it’s because you wore the wrong pair of shoes that hurt your feet, or you went into a career field that ended up making you miserable. This feeling I’ve described is sometimes called regret. However, it’s difficult to define what regret really. What is actually at the root of this feeling so many of us experience on a daily basis and in such a large range? It’s an interesting series of questions to explore and one that I find worth discussing.
There are many definitions given for regret from different sources. For instance, “Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made” (Greenberg). Another source defines regret more as a feeling of mourning or “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair” (Sawhney). Yet another says, “simply put, regret is the feeling that we may have had something more positive now if we had made a different decision in the past, feeling sorry for misfortunes, or thedisappointment over something we’ve failed to do” (Sawhney). Most sources would define regret as a negative emotion that comes up when someone is unhappy with their present circumstances due to past choices. Definitions often involve elements of self-blame, feelings of failure, and a loss of control. Regret is a common emotion in the human experience, but we don’t always consider what’s behind it. Why do we dwell on things we can’t change?
If there’s a situation that didn’t go the way you wanted, there are many resulting thoughts that might go through your mind. Perhaps you could have done or said something differently to make it turn out in your favor. However, once a situation is over, there is rarely anything we can do to change it, and we are left with the negative feelings of what we feel should have happened instead. Regrets are not all the same, however. For instance, one situation might breed far more regret than another. The strength of the emotion varies heavily on the importance of the disappointment. Why is that?
According to many studies done by psychologists, there are certain domains of life that seem to house the most regrets in people’s minds. The top six include education, career, romance, parenting, self, and leisure. “People’s biggest regrets are a reflection of where in life they see their largest opportunities; that is, where they see tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal” (Roese, “What We Regret Most”). These specific six tend to run higher simply because they are often areas of life where people place higher importance. Most people would say their families are important to them, so mistakes related to their families will remain in the forefront of their minds and likewise with the other areas. Areas of extreme importance have a greater capacity for regret (Roese).
Additionally, the types of situations in these six domains tend to be more open ended. Essentially, there are many ways the situation could have gone, so when considering the “what ifs,” there is a never-ending list for your brain to sort through. This takes us right back to my college dilemma, an extremely open-ended domain. Money aside, I can go anywhere and study anything I can dream of. This is true for most adults, which is why it remains one of the greatest domains of regret among Americans today. It can lead to even more intense regrets simply because of the sheer number of possible outcomes. If the future doesn’t quite meet whatever expectations I might hold now, there are infinitely many alternate realities for me to imagine. “Regret can also stem from counterfactual thinking. In other words, the easier it is to envision a different outcome, the more likely we are to regret the lost opportunity” (Greenberg). That’s just human nature. We want the best for ourselves and the people we love, so when things don’t turn out as well as we had hoped, there is often confusion and even anger towards the situation.
Imagine you were going for a long walk with no particular destination. If there’s only one path that continues without ever branching off, you’ll never question it. That’s just where the path goes. However, the second you start seeing other paths branching off the one you’re on, they pique your interest, and you start to wonder where they lead. You might see other people on the other paths and wonder if they’re having a better time than you. Maybe the other paths lead somewhere more interesting than where you are now. Regrets play on the natural human tendency to be curious and to question the way things are. We see the other paths and immediately begin to believe that whichever one we are currently on is somehow inferior, even if that’s not necessarily the case. As soon as discontent arises with a situation, you begin to look around and see the number of other paths there are. As the common saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side.
In a situation where there is only one option, there isn’t much to regret because you can’t imagine yourself having taken a different course of action. Thus, capacity for regret in that situation is nearly eliminated. Regret seems to run higher in situations where action is still possible, or the outcome can still be changed (Davis). Places in our lives where we can look back and see how other paths may have ended up is where regret festers the most. Returning to education, most adults could go back to school to finish a degree and reach their desired level of education. While there are other factors that would play into it, the possibility that you could change things leads to that mental battle going back and forth trying to decide what action to take. You might feel frozen, wondering if you should take a risk and go back. The problem here is that the future is still unknown. Even if we try and go back to rectify the situation, it’s still impossible to know how it will end up, so further regret remains very much a possibility.
This suggests that part of what makes a regret so much more intense is a lack of closure. Without closure, you’re forever left with the “what ifs.” The openness remaining around a situation leaves your brain searching for answers (Roese, “What We Regret Most”). For instance, imagine my childhood best friend and I have a fight, and after this fight, my friend never talks to me again. I never learn why she left. Was it because of the fight? Did I say something wrong? Should I do something about it? Did she forget about me? All these questions and many more
would plague my mind endlessly because there was no reason given for what happened. I would forever be looking for the things I did wrong, ruminating on how my actions were perceived. This is what a lack of closure can do. We need endings to things. That’s why you don’t just stop reading a book in the middle of the climax. Being able to look back on something and know why it happened is necessary to our own peace of mind, but it’s not always something we’re able to have as situations arise that are inevitably out of our control. Our brains can’t find as much to be unhappy about if the situation is over and done with. However, when there are still open possibilities, our brains naturally dwell on them, searching for better alternatives. “Some smaller subset of regrets-those reflecting changeable circumstances- are the ones that remain to haunt people further” (Roese). We naturally like to know everything, and solving problems comes naturally to humans. However, when we’re presented with a situation where we don’t have any solutions, it causes a great deal of inner conflict.
A study done in 2000 by psychological researchers Iyengar and Lepper showed the detriment of having too many choices as it relates to regret. In the study, there were two groups of people, and each was given a selection of products from which to choose. However, one group was given a much larger selection than the other. They later found that the people given more options were actually less likely to buy anything at all, and those who did had a much lower level of satisfaction than those who were given fewer options. Being overwhelmed by choices can actually increase the level of regret later on, which is why open opportunities seem to breed more regret. “This paradox of excessive choice actually makes us less happy and more prone to regret” (Iyengar). College decisions naturally produce a lot of regret because of the sheer number of choices to be made. Which school out of thousands do I want to spend the next four years at? There are nearly infinite areas of study, so how do I know which is best for me? With next to no direction given and an infinite number of possibilities, it’s no wonder education ranks highest in the domains leading to regrets (Iyengar).
Decisions can be divided into two categories, actions and inactions. Basically, you did something, or you didn’t, and both bring up very different kinds of regret. Essentially, a regret of action occurs when you do something and simply wish you hadn’t. For example, if you tell a joke and nobody laughs, you’ll regret you said it at all. The only alternative in this situation was not to tell the joke. However, if you think of a joke but don’t say it, you’ll never know if others would have laughed. That’s a regret of inaction. Your brain is left to consider the open possibilities and the greater number of opportunities breed more regret than in the first example. “When we don’t take action, our imagination fills in the blanks about how the outcome could have been" (Davis). While this example is trivial, the principle applies to situations of greater importance. When you regret an action, the only alternative was not doing the action, but with regrets of inaction, there are infinite actions you could have done, which naturally leads to more regret. “It turns out that the things we’re most likely to regret are the things we didn’t do. Regrets of inaction are stronger and persist longer than regrets of action” (Davis). Regrets of action tend to affect us more in the short term, so you’ll think about it for a little while and then eventually forget about it because you can’t change the past. However, regrets of inaction tend to grow larger with time because there are so many more alternatives to dwell on (Gilovich).
Regrets that grow over time can have extremely negative repercussions. “Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life. This pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking is characteristic of depression—and may be a cause of this mental health problem as well” (Greenberg). The tendency with regret is that it may never go away, and this can turn into pointless overthinking. I would venture to say that no one wants to be constantly thinking about their own failures, “but it’s human nature to linger on those feelings of regret. We tend to look back and think that missed opportunities – real or imagined – could have set us on a different, possibly more rewarding path. Left unchecked, these emotions can becomeoverwhelming sources of stress and anxiety” (Tiatz). As our brains search for solutions and alternative options, they almost begin to self-destruct. It may only happen with certain personality types in certain people, but those who have anxious personality types can be profoundly affected by this.
Dwelling on these anxiety-inducing thoughts is definitely not fun, but the extent of the negative effects it can have on the human brain is often overlooked. “Researchers have found that obsessing over regrets has a negative impact on mood and sleep, can increase impulsivity, and can be a risk factor for binge eating and misusing alcohol” (Tiatz). These physical effects are basically your body’s attempt at expressing the frustration it feels or a physical manifestation of your thoughts. The act of regretting something means you wish you had done something differently, so in your own mind, you messed up. “Given regret involves acknowledging our role in our present circumstances, it also often includes self-blame” (Davis). Of course, this will work differently in different people, but in people who are already predisposed to dwell on things excessively, this can be a very harmful thought process. Self-blame can easily spiral until it becomes nearly consuming, and it’s not a healthy place to be in mentally.
This progression leads to an unhelpful amount of self-criticism and unforgiveness towards oneself. “When we experience regret, we are choosing to relive our past. We are replaying our broken narrative over and over again. We are living as though the past is still, even though it has long stopped explaining the world well for us, and even though the broken narrative continues to hurt us” (Manson). We as people tend to be much less compassionate towards ourselves than anyone else, and this feeling of self-loathing often remains bottled up, which can result in many mental issues that are usually quite unexpected. If you find yourself constantly thinking about how badly you blundered, that’s only going to bring negativity into your mentality. Thinking negatively about yourself will begin to affect your perspective on nearly everything you do, and it can really affect your mood and overall well-being. Living in the past keeps you from even enjoying the present, which can only serve to magnify these issues.
For example, imagine you have an important presentation, and while giving it, you do something minorly embarrassing: you stumble over your words, forget a section, trip on your way up to the front of the room, or do something else along those lines. You have thoughts centering around the single thing that went badly as the event plays over and over in your mind, and you think of all the things you should - or at least could - have done differently. Now imagine an alternative scenario in which it’s your friend giving the presentation, and they’re the one who is embarrassed. A common reaction would be either pity or even amusement because, obviously, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. In fact, you would probably never think about it again. Notice the difference here. The exact same event happened, but you only felt pity towards the other person, even though you went through the exact same thing as them. While the situation is hypothetical, the feelings are not. Once these feelings build up over time, they can only have negative effects especially when the same process happens repeatedly (Manson).
We tend to create a version of ourselves in our heads that represents our less desirable traits, or at least the ones we perceive as less desirable. “The problem with our narratives is that they are chronically short-term, emotional, and self-centered” (Manson). Why can’t we offer the same compassion to ourselves as we would to another person (Bell)? This is what regret does. It takes a single event and causes you to mull it over in your mind, even if it was insignificant like in this example. It takes a simple mishap and causes your brain to manifest it into a false reality. Because you were embarrassed during one presentation, you might approach future presentations with an attitude of “I am terrible at presentations; I’m just going to be embarrassed, so why bother?” What happens if you go through this type of thought process regularly when the cycle of self-criticism is never-ending (Tiatz)?
Once we get stuck in this cycle, it turns into what is often called rumination. Rumination occurs when you dwell on something to the point where it becomes almost an obsession. However, “[t]his kind of regret can potentially have a long-lasting legacy leading to a greater risk of depression” (Bell). You can only imagine how much more impactful it would be with something more important, especially something that involved a difficult decision. “People with significant regret will invariably overestimate their responsibility for past events as a consequence of their entrenched negative mindset. Depression can perpetuate a mindset of self- loathing and constant negative introspection” (Bell). This cycle of regret feeds on itself. Once you feel negatively about yourself because of something you perceive to be your responsibility, you are far more likely to do the same again because you still retain that negative outlook on your own actions. Excessive rumination will only lead to further rumination which takes its toll on one’s outlook.
We see how rumination can cause extremely negative effects, especially as it grows. This is especially dangerous to people with pre-existing mental health struggles. The tendency toward regret would be far higher in someone who already has a negative mindset or a generally anxious mind. Regret will just grow and grow in an endless circle of negativity. Developing a critical eye toward yourself can only add to any regrets you may have in the future. You raise your standards for yourself while simultaneously believing much less of yourself than is reality. This is a key factor in individuals who develop mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The reality is that this thought process is exhausting, at least in my own experience, but it becomes such a central part of your identity that it can be hard to overcome once you get sucked in. That’s the effect of a negative mentality. It only grows and grows. “Depression can be a serious state of mind...ultimately, however, your self-loathing and regret will recede when you can clear stuck feelings from the past and learn to show yourself compassion and love...” (Bell). If we allow ourselves to fall into this pit of rumination, it can only cause an endless cycle of negativity. What Bell says here is that breaking this cycle requires a new narrative to be built into our thought process. A narrative that shows compassion rather than condemnation (Manson).
The way we talk to ourselves has a key role in regrets. I say a lot of things to myself I would absolutely never say to anyone else, especially when it comes to the things I regret about my life. In the above example, how would you talk to your friend after their presentation? Most decent people would console their friend, offering reassurance that it wasn’t as bad as they think. Imagine going up to your friend and telling them they are a terrible person for messing up the presentation, and they are an awful speaker. Most people would never do that. However, the things we say to ourselves are rarely things we would tell another person. In talking about regrets, it’s important to realize that we are often far too harsh on ourselves, and it leads to a lot
of self-hatred that only further enables the regrets you feel. Learning self-compassion is essential to defeating regrets. Being gentle with yourself is one of the most beneficial things in accepting the past and moving on. Being able to look at the situation objectively without falling into the negative lens of regret will allow you to understand what went wrong and how to use the experience to alter your future actions (Bell).
Regrets are based on an idealized version of who we would like to be. Thus, when we don’t live up to that standard, there’s nothing to do but try and bully ourselves into that ideation. “The problem is that we identify with these lost opportunities- we take these failures on as our lost identity, the person we should have been but never were. And then we torture ourselves with that idealized image” (Bell). This can even prevent us from taking advantage of opportunities because we believe we don’t fit our own standard. However, maybe if we could learn to accept our own faults, that inner-bully would be forced out.
For instance, imagine you’re in a job that isn’t really going anywhere, but you’ve been there a while and become accustomed to a lifestyle. It’s a boring and mundane lifestyle, but consistent, nevertheless. Change is an inherently scary thing, and it would seem safe to just stay where you are and live with the regrets you have. It would seem pointless to try and change career paths because you’re in too deep to go back to school and learn something else. You’re also settled with a family, so drastic changes could affect the others in your life. This leaves you regretting the path you took when you were young and had the opportunity of education and independence. However, there’s no real reason this should be true. Sure, you might regret the wasted time of your youth, but if you let your regret keep you from changing careers, what would that accomplish? Dwelling too much on wasted time would only further interfere with your happiness. It’s a balancing act to rectify a realistic present and an ideal future (Manson).
In this scenario, if you were able to throw away your ideal self and focus on the present, you could use the opportunities ahead of you rather than focusing on the ones you misused in the past. Regrets can leave us in a crippled state of not knowing what to do because we don’t know how to please that ideal version of ourselves. So, the key to overcoming regrets could be simply acknowledging that no matter how badly you want to, you cannot change the past. It’s just notpossible, so why consume another moment thinking about one that’s already past? “The more you ruminate — especially about what you can’t control — the harder it will be to work through painful feelings. So, what makes regret bad is when we don’t use the lessons it gives us or when we choose to keep suffering from it. You can’t rewind time. You can’t go back and fix it...” (Sawhney). It would be more beneficial to look at the mistakes you’ve made as further opportunities to better yourself in the future. Rather than letting the regrets consume you, it would be far more productive to turn them around and use them to your advantage. “Regret serves an adaptive purpose. It can help or hurt us. When we feel regret, we can either wallow in our past mistakes or we can take steps to ensure we don’t repeat our past mistakes” (Manson). This may be a key in learning how to overcome regret. Perhaps trying to flip regrets around to serve a productive purpose is the best way to handle the situation.
Regret takes a situation and causes your mind to focus on the negative outcomes. That is why focusing on the good is so important. Being able to take a step back and look objectively at the situation can help you gain a lot of perspective to see both the positives and negatives. “[E]ven painful emotions like regret can be powerful sources of inspiration. Whether you carry minor regrets that speak to your perfectionism, or you continuously cringe over more serious, ‘If only I...’ thoughts, it’s possible to use regret as a lever to help you move ahead rather than letting it weigh you down” (Tiatz). For instance, say you ended a relationship with someone and later come to regret it. You wish you had tried to make it work or done something differently to sustain it. Rather than dwelling on that person and wishing for the past, focus on the positives. Relationships are hard, and whether you realize it or not, you learned a lot through getting to know someone else closely. The knowledge and insight you gained are irreplaceable. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have, you can choose to view the situation by what came out of it.You wouldn’t be the person you are today without those past mistakes. There are still infinite realities you could dwell on, but what matters is the one that actually occurred. It’s a lot easier said than done to avoid overthinking these things, but I believe it is possible to some degree at least. It requires extreme mindfulness around your thoughts. It’s not easy; in fact, I can attest to the fact that it is incredibly difficult. But to live a more fulfilling life, is it not imperative to at least try (Tiatz)?
What if instead of trying to ignore our mistakes and push them away, we embraced them for everything they represent? “Regret feels like this anchor holding us back in the past. How do we leave the past where it happened? How do we process painful emotions and learn from those feelings?” (Sawhney). Mistakes are a normal part of life, so we might as well try and make the best of them. Some might tell you to live “a life of no regrets,” but how can that be realistic?Everyone is going to have things they wish were different; that’s just part of life, so how can you realistically expect to never regret a single thing? In order to never regret anything, you would have to be completely apathetic towards your own life (Richards). It’s important to realize that there is a difference between regret and rumination, however. What I’m saying is that regret is okay. It is completely normal and valid to have things in your life that you regret. What matters is how you choose to handle it. The way you react to the situation says everything about your character and priorities. It’s really up to you, but the evidence suggests that finding a way to turn the regret around into motivation makes a huge difference in not only your mental state, but in your ability to handle future situations as well. What would happen if we did this instead of tending towards rumination? Acknowledge the feeling and understand why you’re having it. Feelings of loss and failure are completely normal, but then you must move past it. Flip the regret around and see how you can learn and grow from the experience (Matta).
This entire thought process will be uncomfortable; there’s no denying it. That’s simply the nature of challenging one’s own line of thinking. “Regret (like any negative emotion) is intrinsically aversive, hence individuals are motivated to avoid it, even if this means sacrificing an objectively superior reward” (Saffrey). The easy thing to do in the moment is ignore the situation and avoid anything that questions our own comfort. However, how will that affect us in the long run? Winston Churchill was quoted saying, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In this context, he was speaking in a general sense about the history of a country or nation as a whole. However, the same principle applies to an individual’s personal history. Mistakes of the past are things we must learn from. If you ignore them, you’re bound to repeat them. Essentially what Churchill is saying is that if you don’t take advantage of past mistakes to better your future, your future won’t be any better than your past.
Just start out with something simple. For the sake of example, say I procrastinated on an assignment for school. In the moment, there is nothing I can do but do my best to finish with the time I have. I will probably have to stay up late to finish and then be tired at school the next day. It’s not an ideal situation, and I will probably regret staying up late to finish the assignment. Rather than thinking about how terrible it was that I didn’t finish earlier, I can instead turn my line of thinking toward how I can make better choices in the future. Then, the next time I have an assignment due, I can remember this instance and choose not to procrastinate. This requires an incredible amount of willpower and discipline, but if I can learn from my mistake, my future will be that much better. Flip the regret around and use it to make the future better. This is all you can really do to rectify the mistake in your mind. Use it to spur yourself on rather than allowing it to hold you back (Richards).
This may be the key to regrets. We’ve seen how negatively rumination can affect your mind, and we know how to recognize a regret in a specific situation. All that’s left is to put it into practice. It’s not something that comes with an instruction manual. It’s not something that comes easily. It’s a lifelong journey. However, I think it’s a journey worth taking...
Remember that painter from the beginning of this discussion? The one who turned his peaceful morning landscape into a horror story? What if it wasn’t such a horror story? There’s a TV show called The Joy of Painting where a painter named Bob Ross teaches the viewers how to paint different landscapes in each episode. One of his biggest philosophies was this, “We don’t make mistakes, we only have happy little accidents.” Through his own seemingly magical skill, Ross managed to turn every “mistake” into something beautiful and worth looking at. For instance, he may turn the accidental red in the grass into a poppy field that brightens the scene. Sometimes the simplest words can be quite profound, and I think this is one of those instances. Approaching life with a happy-accident mentality could be exactly what we need. Maybe viewing our mistakes as little detours rather than mistakes would help us to accept them more, seeing each mistake as an open door rather than a setback (Centerstone).
As a senior in high school, there are a lot of big decisions ahead of me. As I’ve thought through all the possibilities, I’ve come to this conclusion. I am always going to have regrets no matter what happens because I can never know the alternate realities that might have been. So, what can I do with that? Do I just live with the reality that I’m going to beat myself up over the decision I’m about to make for the rest of my life? That is in no way productive and will only inhibit my own enjoyment of life. So, the only option that remains is to accept the fact that I will make mistakes. Accept that if I never made them, I would never learn anything. Being grateful for the good that does come from whichever path I take will be essential to my own happiness and peace of mind. No matter what happens, it will help me grow as a person, and that is something I can appreciate. It makes the decision slightly less daunting when I think about it that way. Having an accepting and even welcoming attitude towards mistakes, or rather, happy accidents, is really the only way to handle them, and that’s a valuable mindset to apply to any situation, no matter where life takes you.