Stop Calling It a “Negative Emotion” to Avoid

Among the many types of basic emotions we can experience (from five to 27, depending upon whose research you read), we tend to label each as “good” and “bad.” Yes: send me more “happiness” and less “fear.” This is based on the stories we tell ourselves and how each feels in our body.

But from our brain’s perspective, these value judgments don’t apply. Each emotion is there to teach us something that promotes our survival. Perhaps especially the squishy ones.

Take Regret—PLEASE!

Here’s a good definition. Regret happens when we 1) blame ourselves for a bad result, 2) feel loss or sorrow for what might have been, or 3) wish we could undo a choice we made.

Here are a few interesting things about it:

  • Intensity varies: We feel more regret when we miss a train by one minute than when we miss it by 10. How close we got before something bad happens matters.
  • Gender bias: Most regrets focus on money and relationship issues. In a study on relationships, 44% of women had romantic regrets versus 19% of men.
  • Responsibility: The more responsible we are for a decision, the more regret we feel when things don’t turn out. (We experience less regret when it’s a group choice.)
  • Changes with age: When we’re younger, we’re more likely to regret the things we’ve done. Older people more often regret what they didn’t do. In addition, seniors have a lower level of regret than the middle-aged or young.
  • Active versus passive: Regret feels more acute when we act and make a poor choice than when we don’t act and something bad happens. That can mean we stay stuck in an uncomfortable place longer than we should, because we have a greater fear of near-term regret.

These are three differences worth noting:

  1. Regret is felt for something that occurred in the past, which we could have changed by making a different choice.
  2. Disappointment involves a poor outcome that happened because of outside factors rather than what we decided.
  3. Anxiety is a diffuse fear about the future.

Getting the Most Out of Regret

This is a truism I hate. “We learn much more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.”

The purpose of regret is two-fold: 1) to show us what hasn’t worked so we don’t do it again, and 2) to help us focus on the quality of our decisions and to do a better job next time.

Of course this implies that we get the lesson and move on. Because when we’re stuck in a loop of constant regret, we face negative physical and mental repercussions: chronic stress, negative effects on your hormones and immune system, and lengthen our recovery time after stressful life events by months or years.

Now that you know this, understand you don’t have to be held hostage by—or ignore and hide out from—your regrets. Try these two things.

Move your energy out of regret: Head- or chest-beating about poor decisions takes energy. Channel this into something more useful. First, spend it on identifying what you learned, as painful as that may feel in the moment. Second, if there is anything you can do to reduce the negative effects of that less than stellar choice, act now. That could include apologizing to others. Third, choose to apply what you now know next time and move on.

Act like you care about yourself: If a friend or loved one shared the same regret-filled experience with you, what would you say or do? Treat yourself as kindly as you would someone else. Cut yourself some slack for making what felt like the best decision you could, knowing what you knew then. And don’t take on more responsibility for what happened than is truly yours.

If your mother is like mine, she would call this “a learning experience” (yes: I loathed that phrase, too). Know that regret is there to teach you an important lesson, which your brain is great at using. Let it do its job—so you can reach your goals faster and enjoy your life more.