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Obsessing Over Regrets

We each have our own personal stash of regrets, and when they surface our language trends to the elegantly named counterfactual conditional phrasing: “If only I had married Bob, I would have been happy.” Well, you didn’t marry Bob (instead you married The Jerk), and in any case there’s no guarantee Bob isn’t his own brand of jerk.

The list of potential regrets goes on. “If only I’d gone to the right college….taken that job in Europe…waited to have children”  If only, if only…

One of the most useless occupations of our already cluttered minds is the act of regretting, especially when regrets remain stuck in our thoughts like a phonograph needle hung up in the groove of a vinyl record (as I glance at my iPod, I’m aware this is a doomed simile).

Psychologists know that chronic regretful thinking is unhealthy. If you continue riding the escalator down to deep regret, you’ll start feeling depressed, anxious, or both. Simple day-to-day joyful possibility will be tainted by the shadow of melancholy. And in your body, you’re triggering a subtle but persistent fight-or-flight response, predisposing yourself to a variety of symptoms, like headaches, jaw tightening, digestive problems, and an inefficient immune system.

Whether you carry one regret or a knapsack full of them, you need to stop as quickly as possible.

The effects of chronic regretful thinking
Canadian psychologists studied the effects of chronic regretful thinking on people’s lives along with their coping skills. They selected 104 volunteers and asked them to review their regrets and the extent to which these decisions affected their lives. Unsurprisingly, there were no unusual regrets, just the usual “shoulda coulda woulda” fare of education and career choices, relationship choices, time with family, taking better care of themselves (but nobody, as the saying goes, regretted not working more).

Curiously, the age of the subjects made little difference: the attitudes of 20-year-olds  were remarkably similar to those of 70-year-olds.

When the psychologists asked about coping skills used in relation to regrets, the answers were interesting. How well you are able to walk away from them seems to depend on how you compare yourself to others. If you’re envious of other people’s lives, your regret will attach itself to you like a sea lamprey. If you’re in a bad job and envy your superficially joyous sister’s position, you will own your regret.

On the other hand, if you think about your unemployed neighbor working through foreclosure on her house, your own situation will feel better by comparison and it’s likely you’ll be able to distance yourself from your regret.

In a nutshell: there’s always someone worse off than you. People who grasp this appear to be better able to cope with regret than those who are more likely to compare “upward” (and yes, just as there are always people worse off than you, there will always be those better off).

French singer Edith Piaf had the right idea altogether, in her defiant “No Regrets” (Non, je ne regrette rien), which I suggest you click here to listen to immediately, joining the 36 million (!) listeners who have already done so. It’s okay if don’t know French and can’t sing along–it makes a great hum-able anthem to inflict on everyone throughout your day.  Less stirring and a bit too melancholy for me, Frank Sinatra has the same idea in “My Way” with its opening line, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But the message is there for everyone. Lives filled with regret are lives unfulfilled.

Once, driving through Mississippi, I came across a small roadside church whose sign read “Church of the Second Chance.” I liked that. It’s what we all need, our personal second chances, every morning of our lives, so we can…

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. Terrss says:

    Thank you

  2. Mark Wilhelms says:

    Well said Dr E. Well said.after moving from the “Shark Tank” of Chicago to run a large Non for profit in “the biggist little town in America” Milwaukee. My life is changing dramatically up here.. Traffic is minimal, good is great, nobody honks car horns at you, they leave work at 5 to go home to their families, they take vacations, everyone says hi and are comfortable in their own skin. I’ve been humbled hy this second chance. BTW Before I used to eat TUMS by the handful daily but since I’ve moved, I haven’t needed a one! Not kidding. Threw the bottle out just the other day.

    • Teresa says:

      You are so right. Stress is something you can’t supplement around. Everyone needs to start standing up to whatever or whoever is causing daily, unrelenting stress to happen to us.

  3. Betsey O'Brien says:

    Dr. Edelberg, I wonder if you can share the source material from the Canadian study with me? I am creating a journaling workshop to help people release negative feelings and this research could be helpful to me. Many thanks!

  4. David Bailey, DC says:

    Hi Doc,
    I’ve always lived by the “no regrets” motto. I often hear, especially people close to me, the regretting statements. There are statements of envy, jealousy and ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’. I hold back on lecturing and/or suggesting alternative thinking (probably to a fault). I don’t understand how and why people go down that road. Mistakes are made daily, some minor, some exceptionally massive. If I was of a mind to reflect on all my bad decisions and the boatload of mistakes that were made, I would be absolutely straight jacketed! It’s good to know all that misguided, misdirected thinking lands us in the fight or flight wheelhouse where our poor physical and mental selves are bathed in stinky stress hormones. I had never viewed it in that way. Philosophically, are we not negating ourselves when we crack the door open to that looney room? ‘Fall down seven, stand up eight’ and ‘Don’t look back’ are certainly words to follow for the preservation of mind and body. Thank you, Dr. David Edelberg, for your ongoing and highly valued blogs.

  5. John says:

    Good advice on keeping things in perspective. I liked the part about remembering that there is always someone worse off than you because it reminds me why I read books about history. The world can seem crazy these days, and the more history you read the more you realize there have been other times just as strange or stranger, and that helps me keep today in perspective. We will survive for another day, and our attitude helps a lot in doing that.

  6. calle says:

    Regrets? Hummmmmm!
    Only one large one, did not do a PhD.
    And thought about Law School, but knew I didn’t want my values changed!
    Simple answer…I was not destined for these things.

    Is my life worse? No, so why take the time to regret!
    I ended up doing things others may have dreamed,but never done.
    We are all “original” art works.
    Have our own paths.
    My life is far too busy for any “regrets”!
    I have been blessed.

  7. MKGilbert says:

    I have a melancholy personality and have had chronic depression since childhood. Thinking about others who are worse off than me does NOT make me feel any better! I avoid the news as I often sit there and cry when I do read it…I try to savor the moment when I can and look forward, but there’s not much (except Heaven) to look forward to when you’re feeling ill most all the time and have no energy. I do have 2 darling grandbabies to cuddle, tho, which really helps. When I’m real depressed I sometimes think everyone would be better off without me. I’ve been in therapy this past year which is helping me to set my mind into better channels…It’s hard to change after years of negative thinking, tho. Wish I’d learned this stuff when I was much younger!

  8. Teresa says:

    But isn’t it true–the saying that “an unexamined life is not worth living?” Can you look back on your life in a way where you learn from it, and not be crushed by it? We all have done the best we could at the time. It’s easy to forget who we were, and what we were up against at any given time. Things change, we change. Hopefully, we stayed true to ourselves and our values throughout our journey through life. That’s the best any person can do. Don’t get confused or discouraged by other people’s journeys. Celebrate your own life. It’s truly a gift to be alive. Consider the alternative.

  9. Deb K says:

    Thank you for another tremendous blog Dr. E.
    No Regrets here, none, nada. Regret is pointless and a soul sucker. Life is far too short and there are always those far worse off.
    Happy holidays to you and yours.

  10. Kathleen a good says:

    Thank you Dr.Edelberg for your no regrets blog .
    I will read often at this holiday time.
    Your valued thoughts were a Christmas gift to me .
    God Bless Dr. Edelberg

  11. Carrie Andrzejewski says:

    Thanks Dr. E for always sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. I miss you and your wealth of knowledge. There isn’t ANOTHER ONE LIKE YOU ON THIS EARTH. God bless you and Happy Holidays. And I hope you are blessed with great health so you can continue to see your patients. Carrie Andrzejewski

  12. Vivian Hood says:

    First, thank you Dr. E..:perfect timing for the New Year! If I may, MKGilbert, I also am a fellow sufferer. What helps me is to plaster how friends see me onto my blasting of myself. Caroline Myss and others will say it is our personality that sees us as victim, whereas our life lessons, failures, physical sickness seen from a soul level were exactly what we needed. I do know where you come from as I am often there. I will add you to my prayer list.

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