How To Deal With Regret

Regret and disappointment are part of life. The difference between regret and disappointment is in the amount of control you have. You are disappointed when something happens that you have no control over. However, you experience regret when you choose to take or not take action. It was your choice, you made it, and now you regret it. Imagine you are a small child and write to Santa Claus that you want a bike for Christmas. Christmas day comes, and there is no bike. You are disappointed. However, when your parents see how distraught you are, they may experience regret that they didn’t buy you the bike.

Regret is a powerful emotion. It is what often makes a big contribution to our decision whether to do something or not. It means that regret is also a form of punishment we create for ourselves. “I have to do this, otherwise I would regret it later,” is often the main reason why we do something. The fear of the punishment by regret for not doing it is too strong. Similarly, the warning of others, “Don’t do this, you will regret it later,” plays a similar role in deciding not to take action. Regret kicks in at the moment the result of the action or inaction is worse than the alternative.

Do we regret action or inaction?

The story of regret becomes intriguing when we consider what we regret more, acting or not acting? In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman answers it by this example. Imagine two friends. One owns shares in company A and considered switching to company B but ultimately decided against it. Now he learns he could make $1,200 if he switched. The second person owned shares of company B and switched to company A. If he kept his original shares, he would make $1,200. Who feels bigger regret? Financially, both friends could make $1,200 more than they have today, no difference. Yet, when scientists asked who would feel bigger regret, 8% of respondents said the first, and 92% said it would be the second. People expect to have a stronger regret when acting, like selling the shares, than not doing anything. There is a significant asymmetry.

To make it more complicated, it seems that regret is less about acting and more about deviating from the default behavior. It is easy to imagine how the default situation would feel. So when you take action and do something non-standard and fail, it is easier to see the difference, and you feel more painful emotions. In the example above, the default of person B was not to sell shares. They could imagine how that would feel. When they sold the shares with less than stellar results, the regret kicked in. Person A stayed with the default, and after learning that they could have made more of the switch, they didn’t have the same emotional charge as they didn’t experience what it means to switch.

Regret is a function of doing something out of normalcy. Kahneman illustrates this in another example of two people who get robbed after picking up a hitchhiker. One of them almost never picks hitchhikers. The other does it regularly. Who will experience bigger regret? It is the one who almost never picks hitchhikers. He has done something unusual, and now he kicks himself for doing it. The other person who picks up hitchhikers regularly knows that this is just a one-off and shrugs it off.

Regret in the long run

Then there is the time factor. In the long run, we tend to regret the things we haven’t done, rather the things we have done. It is the chances we didn’t take and the opportunities we missed that haunt us. Whatever we did get normalized, we learned to accept it and live with it even if it had a bad outcome. But the things we could have done and didn’t, our unfulfilled dreams, are painted in better colors than reality probably would have been. And we are more likely to regret not doing them.

In a blog post by Sarah Goff-Dupont, Daniel Pink also notes that people regret more inaction than action in the long run. Short-term, it might be the other way around, as described by Kahneman. Part of the problem is that actions that don’t end up as expected are often possible to undo. That doesn’t apply to inaction. You can’t undo something you haven’t done in the first place. Most of the regrets are then about opportunities or obligations. We regret opportunities we didn’t take and obligations we didn’t fulfill.

When it comes to career, Pink suggests that people regret not taking risks and playing it too safe, typically by not starting a business on their own. Then it is not investing enough into themselves, not learning when they got the opportunity.

What to do about regret?

As indicated, even though we may kick ourselves in the short-term and regret an action we took, in the long run, we are more likely to regret not acting. It is all the missed opportunities that haunt us.

Therefore a good strategy to deal with regret is turning to purpose. Especially when we regret playing it too safe and not leaving a legacy. When people realize that they are not making a dent in the world, that their work doesn’t matter, it makes them feel that they are wasting their lives. They regret their choices. The way to change that is to find purpose in life and get into action. It is never too late to start!

What is your take on the topic? What are the things you regret? Do you regret more taking action or being passive? What is your recipe for dealing with regret?

Photo: geralt /

For more, read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, introversion, software development, and career The Geeky Leader, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter: @GeekyLeader

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Quiet Success by Tomas Kucera

Categories: Life

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