Is Regret a Useless Emotion?
I don’t like regret …it’s pretty much a useless emotion. There, I said it, and I realize that such a sentiment might seem rather strange coming from a psychologist. Now let me explain why I harbor this attitude towards the emotional experience of regret.
Regret Keeps You Chained to Your Past
Generally speaking, regret concerns feeling guilty about the past. We might feel like we SHOULD’VE made different choices, but in the end, we actually didn’t make better choices and, as a consequence, we veer towards feeling just absolutely horrible about it. It’s a penance of sorts, a way to punish ourselves and to take the blame for whatever perceived grievance(s) occurred.
The thing about such self-derision is that it is a fundamental waste of your time. To feel so negatively about yourself is to diminish your sense of self-worth. In that emotional state, one might counter, “Well GOOD! I DESERVE to be miserable for what I said or did!” To that, I’d say that it’s important to keep in mind the various ways in which the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system) can warp our perception.
Sometimes this works in our favor, of course, as when we’re capable of basking in our perceptual experience to be completely connected to a moment in time or a person in that moment, or perhaps we might be able to love and trust more, or be more inclined to take some healthy risks instead of surrendering to self-doubt. During those times when negative emotions permeate, as with regret, such emotional distortion tends to work against us.
To cling to a negative view of oneself is to create a mental trap that essentially keeps you chained to your past.
The Negative Feedback Loop of Regret
The negative feedback loop that is created by emotional distortion may look something like the following:
I did something inexcusable. → I shouldn’t have done it. → But since I did, I guess I’m a terrible person. → Terrible people are doomed to make bad choices. → Because I feel this way about myself, now I’m going to hyperfocus on all of the bad choices I make from here on out, thereby confirming any negative view of myself. → Oops, I did something inexcusable again. → I shouldn’t have done it….and so on, and so on.
Regret and Relationships
Often times I see regret emerge in the context of a relationship. “I should’ve spent more time with her (or him)” and “I should’ve treated him (or her) better” are common laments, particularly in the wake of a break-up or death of a loved one.
Now the only way such compulsions to emotionally self-flagellate are useful is when they compel that person to enter into new relationships or treat existing relationships with a renewed sense of purpose, armed with a fresh, more enlightened and/or hopeful perspective.
In other words, it doesn’t behoove you to think negatively about yourself for what did or didn’t happen, rather, it makes more sense to consider what was your experiential life lesson or key educational takeaway, and to apply that knowledge towards other circumstances.
Bear in mind that I’m not advocating for someone to be callous about their ill-informed choices. I heartily recommend that, whenever possible, someone take ownership of their actions by claiming them outright and perhaps further demonstrating responsibility by making an effort towards reparations.
This is not always possible, of course, because the other involved individuals may either have passed, moved somewhere, need to come to terms with their own feelings on their own time, or maybe whatever you did was seen as so egregious they just do not want to be involved with you in any way. Be sure to walk through that door if it presents itself, of course, and if it doesn’t, at least try to create that opportunity, but then move on if it doesn’t happen.
What is Pregret?
This brings me to the subject of this article – “pregret.” I’d like to take credit for coining this term as I’ve been using it for several years, but someone certainly may have beat me to the punch. No matter, I’m not looking to establish trademarks, just providing a useful label for a healthier way of thinking about life.
Anyway, this is how I define pregret:
Pregret – The act of living your life in such a way as to imagine that you or a loved one will be gone tomorrow. It is a pro-active and preemptive way of conducting yourself that actively limits the amount of regrets you might have if you or someone you love were to be out of your life.
I have periodically introduced this term to some of the folks that I’ve counseled if I felt like it was pertinent to their situations. It is applicable in many cases because honestly who hasn’t felt regret at some point in their lives?
Anyway, when introducing the term I often ask people to engage in a sort of thought exercise. More specifically I might ask them to think about someone of great importance to them, perhaps a family member or a significant other, a mentor, a pastor, rabbi, coach, or teacher.
Next, I might ask them to think about whether they would have any regrets if this person in mind were to suddenly not be in their life. Their answer to that question is CRITICAL because, if they reply in the affirmative, there’s work to be done! If they deny being aware of any future regrets they’re either in a good place in the relationship or there’s also the possibility that they could be in denial.
Regret Is Set in Stone, Pregret Shapes Your Future
Regarding the “work to be done,” well the absolutely wonderful distinction between regret and pregret is focusing on the past with its finality as opposed to focusing on the future and its potentiality.
Regretful decisions are set in stone, but with pregret, you can actively shape your future.
So if you’ve identified someone that you’d feel some regret if they’re no longer here, BUT THEY’RE STILL HERE, what can you reasonably do about it? To put it succinctly, you can mobilize to actualize!
That is, set in motion what is now on your mind, take action, tell someone you love them, let them know how much they mean to you, spend more time with them, address your concerns while you still have the opportunity to do so, then maybe, if you’ve done all of what you reasonably can, pregret won’t turn into regret.