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The Most Misunderstood Emotion

And why it has such a bad rap.

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Nhung Lê
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Whenever I hear the word “regrets,” I can't help but start to hum the old Frank Sinatra tune “My Way.” As the lyrics say, “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention …”

Some regrets are silly and inconsequential. Like last week, I ate two slices of very greasy pizza around 8 p.m. and regretted it soon after as I lay in bed bloated with terrible heartburn. Debating whether to take a Tums, I felt regret and vowed not to eat pizza late at night again. (But I’m pretty sure I will!)

Other regrets have a longer shelf life. One of my regrets is that I didn’t move into the city with my friend Stacey in my 20s. I declined, thinking I would be better off living at home and saving money. But then I wound up moving from my parent’s house to a home with my husband.

Although I regret not giving myself a year or two to live independently, I am overall very content with how my life has turned out so far. But according to a survey of 2,000 British adults commissioned by the U.K. charity consortium Remember A Charity, 4 out of 10 people regret how they have lived their lives so far. The respondents’ biggest regrets were spending too much time at work and not traveling enough.

Regret — a misunderstood emotion

Many may believe that dwelling on regrets wastes time and head space. A new book by Daniel H. Pink, The Power of Regret, has made me reevaluate whether trying to forget, ignore or minimize our regrets as we get older is the best idea.

In 2019, Pink was at his daughter’s graduation when nostalgia took over. He began thinking about his young adulthood, his choices and some of his regrets.

His self-reflection provoked him to ask a few of his friends whether they had any of his regrets. Pink says, “I thought they would recoil from the question, but they were forthcoming. The response was so interesting I decided to do some more research into the topic.”

Part of the reason regret has such a bad rap is that we don’t like experiencing negative emotions. Mantras such as “It’s all good” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” make us feel guilty for feeling bad. We fear we will get stuck in the past if we don’t always look ahead. Pink says, “We are suffocating ourselves in positivity. Allowing ourselves to feel bad or regretful can be liberating.”

Four types of regret

Pink determined that regrets usually fall into four categories. They are:

  • Foundation regrets

This category includes basic choices that cause regret, such as not saving enough money, starting to smoke cigarettes or quitting college. Foundation regrets are about failing to plan, and the consequences of these choices show up later in life.

  • Boldness regrets

This category is about not taking chances. These sound like, “If only I had taken that risk …”

  • Moral regrets

This is the smallest category but also the one in which memory tends to last the longest. Infidelity would fall into this category. The regrets sound like, “If only I had done the right thing …”

  • Connection regrets

This is the largest category, and it’s about relationships. These sound like, “If only I had reached out …” During his research, Pink found that for people in their 20s and younger, regrets are mainly about the actions they took. But for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, regrets are more about inaction. “It’s not even close,” says Pink. “It’s 3 to 1. Regrets are about the risks they didn’t take and the things they didn’t do in their life.”

Finding the power in regret

The key to harnessing the power of regret is not to wallow or ruminate in it but to examine our regrets and see what they can teach us. Pink explains, “Most of us can’t remember what we ate for breakfast yesterday. So, if you have regret, something that happened years ago that you still remember and still bothers you from time to time, it’s probably trying to tell you something.”

So, what can I learn from my regret about not living independently in my 20s? The first lesson is to help my kids, especially my daughters, to take that risk. When my daughter got a job in another state and wasn’t certain if she wanted to live on her own so far away, I told her I thought it was a good idea and why, based on my experience.

The second thing my regret may be telling me is that I might need more independence. I don’t regret getting married young, and I don’t currently want to live on my own without my husband. But because I have never lived on my own, subconsciously I am more fearful about how I would cope if something were to happen to my husband suddenly. Perhaps instead of being afraid or pushing down this regret, I can use it in a productive manner — such as learning more about our finances to be more prepared in an emergency.

While living a life of  “no regrets” sounds fearless, Pink believes that it is looking regrets square in the eye that shows true courage. He says, “Looking backward can help you to move forward. Understanding your regrets helps you to clarify your values and live a happier life.”