Something close to a position of ‘no regrets’ — making a choice and living with the consequences — is easy to adopt for me. But is an absolute ‘no regrets’ policy too close to callousness?
A few years ago I got divorced. (I am now very happy with a new partner.) This led to a number of changes, most especially in relationships. A surprising number of people, for instance, felt that they could not remain friends with both me and my ex-wife.
No Way to Compare
At the time a number of people asked me if I thought that I was better off for being divorced. I found this a difficult question to answer. Firstly, I didn’t feel like I had the energy to continue — so it wasn’t an issue. Secondly, there were so many factors to consider. How to weigh the consequences for friendships against my ex-wife’s reactions and my own responses? Would it have been possible to continue and improve the relationship? (I didn’t feel I had the energy to continue, but perhaps I was wrong.) How much improvement would have been possible? Thirdly I realised that there was no ‘parallel me’ walking around — I couldn’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed in the relationship, and I couldn’t compare it with my current life. There wasn’t another Evan who had kept living my old life to compare my new life with. For these reasons I felt that to decide if I was better off was a difficult question to answer.
This is close to a position of ‘no regrets’ — you make your choices and live with the consequences. As Solomon said, “Do not ask why former days were better than these; it is not from wisdom that you ask this”! This is a stance that is easy to adopt for me, just to decide and get on with it.
And yet, sometimes I do have regrets. Just telling myself that I shouldn’t have them isn’t likely to lead to much insight or understanding.
Usually I think our regrets are because we believe we could have done something else. We want to go back and re-do what we did — to voice our anger differently, to assert our need more strongly, to leave a relationship sooner or stay longer. On occasion something like this may be possible. Our regret may motivate us to learn to voice our anger differently or to re-establish a relationship. We can’t re-do the past, but we may be able to behave differently in the present, including in relationships that have continued into the present from our past.
Sometimes, I think, we regret something even though we recognise we couldn’t have done anything else. I find this much harder to know what to do with. Common advice is to realise that we can’t change the past, to realise that what’s done is done and so forth. These are truisms.
They are truisms that I feel uncomfortable with. I feel that an absolute ‘no regrets’ policy lies perilously close to callousness. So I’d like to examine regret a little.
For me regret involves a comparison, a comparison between what I did or didn’t do with what I could have done or not done. The comparison can be a moral one (what I did or didn’t do compared with what I should have done or not done), but this needn’t be the case: I may regret that I didn’t get the job or that the meeting took longer than it could have, and no moral dimension is involved.
Regret is bound up with the desire for a situation, or my response to it, to be different to how it was. If nothing else, regret alerts us to a desire that we have. This may be information that is worth having. We may find that we want to live more harmoniously with others, or assert our difference more firmly, or want meetings to run more efficiently.
If we listen to our regrets then we may learn about our desires and values. We can’t change the past, but our regrets may give us information about the direction that we want to head in the future. It may be futile to try to change the past, but if we listen to our regrets we may learn more about who we are.
Do you have regrets? Have you learned from them? Or, have you found that dwelling on them is just a waste of time? I’d like to hear your experience in the comments.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by