Blogs

How Regret Can Be Your Friend (2019)

Manfred Kets de Vries

When managed properly, regret is a great decision-making tool

When managed properly, regret is a great decision-making tool.

 

Dealing with regret is a universal human experience. All of us have made poor or foolish choices that we regretted later. All of us have felt disappointment and sorrow at what could have been. But while regret reminds us that we made some unfortunate decisions, it also tells us that we could have done so much better.

 

Our greatest regrets seem to revolve around pivotal life choices such as education, career, parenting, marriage and romance (including regrets about extra-marital affairs). This is unsurprising as decisions in these areas tend to have long-term and sometimes irrevocable consequences. Other regrets that often arise relate to finance, health, friendship, charity, travel, worry (too much), and even having led a too conventional life.

 

However, many people I have asked about regrets claim to not have any. In fact, they seem to resist expressing doubts or moving into a space of discomfort about their past life, actions and decisions. Perhaps this avoidance mirrors an existential fear of confronting the darker parts of ourselves.

 

Other people, unfortunately, go in the opposite direction and ruminate endlessly about regret. This maladaptive habit can contribute to self-blame and depression, with serious emotional, cognitive and neurophysiological impact. Self-torment by regret stymies our personal development and may even cause mental health problems.

 

How narcissism and ageing influence regret

 

The intensity of our regret very much depends on our narcissistic equilibrium. Individuals who lack self-esteem seem more susceptible to thoughts of regret and reflections that can further impede their sense of self-worth. Although their willingness to face regret is commendable, they appear to struggle working through it. This can make them risk-averse, fearful about making yet another bad decision. To be stuck between regretting the past and fearing the future is not a good position to be in.

 

Ageing also influences how we deal with regret. As we realise that our time on this planet is running out, we are more likely to reflect upon the past and try to sort out the mistakes we may have made. This can bring a greater acceptance of our limitations, which in turn can temper the ravages of regret and even generate a new intensity of life. For some, of course, wallowing in regrets may trigger despair and bitterness.

 

The survival function of regret

 

Talking about regret often brings up negative experiences and emotions such as sadness, shame, grief, annoyance, anger or guilt. Having said that, from an evolutionary point of view, regret could have a survival function.

 

Regret can be a psychological construct related to decision making, coping and learning. It forces us to engage in a retrospective analysis to understand why we thought or acted the way we did. Through analysing regrets and getting over the past, we may be able to take remedial action. Regret can become a positive impetus for finding new constructive solutions and moving forward. Thus, in more than one way, regret is our brain’s way of telling us to take another look at our choices; to signal that some of our actions had very negative consequences; and to try things differently in the future.

 

Unfortunately, despite regret’s important guidance, most of us don’t pay sufficient attention to it. While we try to reduce our level of stress – articulate our career goals, improve our diets, boost our finances, and manage pretty much everything else – we are reluctant to deal with regrets. Staying open vis-à-vis regrets, however, can provide us with greater insight about ourselves and help us avoid future dysfunctional scenarios. In short, it can greatly improve our future decision-making skills.

 

Becoming better versions of ourselves

 

When we experience regret, the challenge is not to try to change the past. On the contrary, it is about shedding light on the present. We cannot alter what has happened, but we can refine how we react and how we are going to live in the future.

 

Analysing our own shortcomings can prevent us from behaving repeatedly in dysfunctional ways. As we incorporate these learning experiences into our decisions and actions, we are less likely to get stuck in “if only” thinking. It can also help us gain clarity and take advantage of opportunities that otherwise could have slipped by.

 

Instead of avoiding regret, it’s much wiser to deal with the feeling up front, so long as we don’t let it set the tone for the rest of our lives. We must learn to use our regrets constructively and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. Hopefully, the insights revealed by our regrets will help us elevate our decisions so that we don’t regret tomorrow how we lived today.

 

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge.

Copyright INSEAD 2019

INSEAD Knowledge, 2019

Read more

Add Comment

Go back


Related content

"Assessing psychological risk factors of leaders"

How Is Our Pilot Feeling Today?: A Courageous Conversation That Could Make a Difference

This blog presents a quick assessment of psychological risk factors for high performing individuals.

Published on 18 Apr, 2015

"An Early Warning System for Team’s Stress Level"

An Early Warning System for Your Team’s Stress Level

Inspired by aviation and medical best practices for handling crises, we set out to develop a simple yet robust protocol that could help executives anticipate cases of potential burnout. Rather than being a test, survey, or assessment tool, the Stress-APGAR provides a set of guidelines that help executives think about and articulate factors that may lead to burnout.

Published on 26 Apr, 2017

"Corporate genius and psychopaths"

Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review. discusses the thin line between corporate genius and psychopaths.

Published on 7 Jan, 2014

"What makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well"

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David chose the gift of wisdom.

 

In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness and compassion, necessary in the pursuit of wisdom.

Published on 4 Jul, 2017

"Do less instead of doing too much"

The Case for Slacking Off

This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review argues that the biggest problem we have in contemporary society is not that we do too little but that we try to do too much.

Published on 10 Dec, 2013

"Down the rabbit hole of shame"

Don’t Let Shame Become a Self-Destructive Spiral

Shame is part of the human experience. Keeping your feelings of shame in perspective can relieve you of a harmful tendency to self-blame, and, eventually, make peace with your shadow side. Knowing that you are good enough, worthwhile, and deserving of love and acceptance is essential for building resilience and living your most authentic life.

Published on 1 Jun, 2017

“Knowing is the easy part; saying it out loud is the hard part.”

How to Coach a CEO

Successful coaching involves working with – not against – an individual’s resistance.

Published on 20 Aug, 2018

"Managing those who won't see the middle ground"

How to Manage Someone Who Can't Handle Ambiguity

This blog entry for the Harvard Business Review explores how one can manage leaders who see things in black and white, unable to accept a middle ground.

Published on 10 Mar, 2015

"Self awareness and team effectiveness"

First Know Yourself, Then Your Team

This blog explores how, in order to be truly effective, leaders must first understand the unconscious motivations in themselves, followed by those of the people around them.

Published on 13 Aug, 2014

"Are you suffering from the wealth fatigue syndrome?"

Pity the Super Rich

This blog entry explores the wealth fatigue syndrome. Instead, one should invest in enduring things that matter.

Published on 10 Dec, 2014