I recently read Daniel Pink’s, The Power of Regret. It is a thought-provoking book on a feeling that most of us shun. It seems counterintuitive to focus on a negative emotion that could potentially lead down a dangerous path of rumination. Pink bravely investigates the topic by drawing on research in economics, neuroscience, psychology and biology. His findings were thought-provoking; while regret is universal, it doesn’t need to be negative.
As Amy Blaschka wrote for Forbes, “In conducting his World Regret Survey, in which he collected regrets from more than 16,000 people in 105 countries, Pink found that most people have regrets that fall into four core categories:
- Foundation regrets — “If only I’d done the work.”
- Boldness regrets — “If only I’d taken the chance.”
- Moral regrets— “If only I’d done the right thing.”
- Connection regrets— “If only I’d reached out.”
As Pink wrote, “When we handle it properly, regret can make us better. Understanding its effects hones our decisions, boosts our performance, and bestows a deeper sense of meaning.” Pink suggests a 3-step process to tackle regret properly.
5 steps to capitalize on regret:
- Undo it. If possible, undo the damage you’ve done. Apologize for the pain you’ve caused or for not staying in touch or for the deeds you committed. I recall someone I went to elementary school with reached out to me some ten years ago. I was on the west coast at the time and we met for coffee. We chatted and caught up and then they apologized for bullying me in grade school. I have to admit that I was bullied by so many during school, I had forgotten this person’s bullying but I so appreciated that they apologized. Maybe it’s telling the truth, writing a check, going back for the degree, calling a long-lost friend or returning an heirloom. If there is a way to undo it, do it.
- “At least.” Silver medalists are rarely smiling as much as the bronze medalists. The silver medalist is thinking “if only” and the bronze medalist is thinking “at least” I made the podium. Think more like a bronze medalist. I’ve done this with my children’s dad. I will randomly remember a breach of trust he committed (some thirty-five years ago!), and then I think, “Well, at least I have two healthy, vibrate children or at least I travelled around South America with him”. It could always have been worse. Try on “at-least “Ing.
- Self-disclosure. Find a friend, sister or coach or pick up a pen and start writing. As Kevin Delany wrote for Charter Works, “Writing or talking about a regret can help move it from a place of emotion to a place where you can analyze it. Research has shown that just writing about a regret can make abstract emotions more concrete and lighten the burden.” I remember when my second marriage ended, I wrote several long diatribes to my ex. I never mailed them but the release helped me transform the pain into forward motion. Instead of getting caught up in the regret, I was able to slowly realize that this was actually a positive direction and that I wasn’t stuck any longer. In retrospect, it was a boldness regret that I didn’t decide to take the chance to leave him but regardless, I was now free. Bring it into the light and practice self-disclosure.
- Self-compassion. As Blacshka wrote, “We tend to treat ourselves far worse than we would ever treat others, whether they’re friends, family, or even strangers facing the same mistake. And berating ourselves when we’re already frustrated and feeling like a failure is counterproductive. Instead, we’re much better off extending ourselves the same kindness, warmth, and understanding we’d offer a good friend. By normalizing our negative experiences, says Pink, we neutralize them.” What would you say if your child or friend came to you with the same regret? That’s the self-talk you need to rectify the regret.
- Self-distancing. Distancing doesn’t mean hiding or numbing out. Self-distancing is putting space, time or language between you and the regret. Putting space between you and the regret is taking a different vantage point like being a fly on the wall. How would the fly see the situation? Putting time in between is looking out ten years and seeing what advice you would give yourself now. I remember doing a time travel meditation after I gave up alcohol to project out how I would look in ten years if I kept the same pace of drinking. It’s really grounded me in sticking to my sobriety. Using language is all about using the second or third person. Pink says that “when we abandon first person in talking to ourselves, the distance that creates helps us recast threats as challenges and replace distress with meaning.” Figure out how to distance yourself to get a new perspective.
Reading the book and writing this piece has brought up several regrets for me but I have to say that it’s been beneficial. It has instructed me on the path forward, provided clarity and I feel lighter from the experience. Regret doesn’t have to just be negative, it can be powerful.