The human mind’s capacity to work in the abstract is a tool and, just as a hammer can pound a nail or your thumb, your mind can work for you or against you.
Being able to ruminate, ponder, remember, compare and fantasize allows you to pursue goals beyond those just necessary for physical survival, momentary pleasure, and reproduction. However, left to run amok, these tools can do more harm than good in the long run.
Regret is a good example of an abstract process with a dual nature. On one hand, when you screw up, your well-intentioned mind hopes that the nasty feeling of reliving and kicking yourself for something in the past—along with emotions like sadness, guilt, and shame—will keep you from repeating the same mistake.
What your mind doesn’t realize is that it’s beating a dead horse. You get it: you screwed up and wish things had happened differently. You can reach that conclusion pretty quickly, but that often doesn't stop your mind from continuing to pile on the regret, and that can impact your psychological well-being. For one thing, it can erode your confidence and self-esteem, which can impair your ability to make the right decisions in the future.
One way to work with regret that you’re already feeling is to cultivate present-moment awareness with mindfulness meditation practices, which helps to loosen the grip that negative thoughts can have on you. However, what I’d like to focus on today is what you can do to nip the problem in the bud, by removing the ingredients of long-term regret.
Loose ends, paths not taken, and fear of the dark
Before we talk about strategies, we need to talk about three innate tendencies of your mind that combine forces to set you up for regret.
- Have you ever been called away while you’re in the middle of doing something and then found your mind returning again and again to the unfinished business you need to take care of? That’s something called your “resumption drive” (or the "Zeigarnik effect").
Your mind abhors loose ends, and whether it’s a mundane one (the basket of laundry you need to finish folding) or one that connects deeply with your self-identity (the degree program you didn’t quite finish), it will nag you to tie them up.
- Short-term regrets usually concern something you’ve done, but the ones that haunt you over the long term are most likely to concern things you haven’t done. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in experiments.
It makes sense in light of your resumption drive: if your mind is already inclined to dwell on actions you haven't taken, then it stands to reason that regret is more likely to emerge from those things.
- The single largest cause of inaction is fear. It’s a natural response to the unknown that’s intended to keep you from harm. However, your mind also tends to err on the side of caution in the face of incomplete information.
It will fill in the blanks on its own, often making assumptions that increase the sense of risk, and make you less likely to act. This, in turn, can begin a snowball effect whereby you stick your head in the sand, taking in less and less information (creating more and more blanks), and making increasingly uninformed decisions.
You could imagine a child who is convinced that a monster lives under his bed. He pulls a blanket over his eyes, hoping that, when the monster comes to get him, his inability to see the monster will also make him invisible to it. The darkness is a breeding ground for primitive, irrational, and counterproductive coping strategies.
The good news is that all of these innate tendencies, just like regret itself, are well-intentioned. If your mind had its way, you wouldn’t make mistakes or leave things undone in the first place. You’d consistently make wise decisions and take actions that are aligned with your long-term best interests.
Here are three ways you can get out of the way and let your mind steer you naturally toward a more regret-free life, and even help the process along.
1. Be open to new information
If a big part of the regret problem is your mind’s tendency to fill in the blanks with fear-multiplying assumptions, then the antidote is to minimize the number of blanks. Knowledge is fear’s worst enemy: just ask any parents who’ve successfully banished the monster under their child’s bed simply by turning the lights on and taking a quick look with their kid.
You can do the same by being receptive to input and actively seeking information. Nurturing a sense of curiosity and openness—not just when you’re facing a decision, but all the time—keeps your information stores topped off.
More importantly, it helps you establish a healthier response when uncertainty comes in the future: relaxing into it and surveying the facts and the blanks just as they are.
You’ll be less likely to be caught off-guard and retreat to your inner world of doubt and paralyzing assumptions, and better able to plan the smartest course of action. That, in turn, will decrease the likelihood of regret down the road.
2. Intangible rewards and abstract goals
We know that people motivated by extrinsic, objective rewards such as money, belongings, and fame tend to be less happy than people who are intrinsically motivated. (Intrinsic goals aren't things that you can see, touch, or taste. Instead, you know you have them by the way you feel—things like love, justice, competence, and connection would be examples.)
Extrinsic motivators also hit you with a double whammy when it comes to regret: research shows that the promise of material rewards undermines that resumption drive I mentioned. This makes you less likely to resume an activity that you’ve stopped.
Likewise, as with happiness and goal achievement in general, abstract goals (“I want to enjoy close connections with others”) beat concrete ones (“I want to be married and have two children within five years”).
Yes, it can be helpful to set short-term, concrete milestones because these help you work toward your goals methodically and give you reference points with which you can see and enjoy your progress. But it’s best to tie your long-term goals to abstract qualities, traits, or feelings you’d like to have. You’ll be happier, more persistent, and less likely to leave loose ends that way.
3. Make a decision and take action
Do your best to incorporate the above tips, but even if you aren’t successful in either or both of them, your best bet in general is: when in doubt, act. If you always make the best decision possible at the time, using the best information you have available, regret won’t have a foothold. It’s true.
As you practice turning on the lights in the dark rooms you encounter, and aligning your actions with your deeply-held values, there won’t be many shadows left to scare you, and you'll have fewer reasons to beat yourself up.
Now, will taking more action expose you to more short-term regret? Of course, because you’ll still make mistakes no matter how informed or aligned with your core values you are. However, taking action is a win-win for you in the long run.
If your action is successful, then you’re obviously better off than if you'd done nothing. But even if you get it wrong, you’re still better off. If you happen to trip as you’re moving forward, that still beats being chained to the floor. While the unintended consequences may bother you for a while, ultimately that will fade; choosing to take no action will stick with you.
In other words, it’s better to regret something you did for a little while than to regret something that you didn’t do forever.
Ready to end regret and move forward confidently into the fulfilling, happy life you deserve? Click here to download my free 28-page eBook, Reach Your Peak, for a comprehensive overview of what you need to know, and how to take your next step.