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Everybody has regrets
No matter how your life plays out, there will be situations that don’t go your way, things you wish you would have done, and words left unspoken. Yet, in a society where “no regrets” is culturally celebrated, we don’t often talk about how we reckon with those feelings.
It’s one of the reasons why author Daniel Pink became interested in the subject. He actually was writing another book at the time. He says, “I started thinking about regret and having some life experiences that made me think about it even more. I started doing the research, I threw that book aside and started with a new topic because it was so it was so compelling.”
Daniel Pink has written seven books, five of which are New York Times bestsellers. He was a host and a co-executive producer of the 2014 National Geographic Channel social science TV series, “Crowd Control,” and from 1995 to 1997, he was the chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. Today on the podcast, he joins me for a conversation about his most recent book, “The Power of Regret; How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.”
How to process regret
“The saying ‘no regrets’ is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous”, says Dan. Regret provides us with a key piece of insight into the world of ‘what went wrong last time?’ If we take the time to cognitively reflect on that question, without beating ourselves up about it, we place ourselves in a much better position to make a reasonable decision moving forward, and not repeat the same mistakes of the past. So how do we handle this retrospective?
Dan suggests three steps:
- Inward – Use self-compassion. Reframe the way you think about the regret and yourself.
Regrets hurt. It doesn’t help that when we talk to ourselves, we’re brutal. In fact, there’s no evidence that negative self-talk is effective at helping us improve or build self-eestem. Instead treat yourself with kindness instead of contempt. Recognize that your regrets is part of the human condition and it doesn’t fully define you.
- Outward – Disclose your regrets by writing them down or telling someone.
There is a very strong evidence in the benefits of talking or writing about your regrets. When we disclose, it’s an unburdening. Disclosure is also a way to build affinity with others. We think that when we disclose our mistakes, people will like us less. That’s generally wrong. Data shows that people tend to like us more; they think more highly of us. Lastly, and may most importantly, Dan notes that emotions are amorphous. It’s what makes positive emotions feel good. It’s also why negative emotions feels so shitty. They’re abstract. When you talk or write about regrets, you’re helping to make them more concrete and you can start making sense of it.
- Forward – Extract a lesson. What would you tell a friend with the same dilemma?
What can we learn from what we’ve done in the past? Dan points out, we’re terrible at solving our own problems. We’re too close to it. So he suggests using a technique called “self-distancing”. The best technique for this is imagine your friend came to you with this dilemma, what would you tell her to do? Turn your regret into action you can do moving forward.
A bias toward action
Regret can be a driving force for change if we conceptualize it in a positive way. Negative emotions exist for a reason, to be reckoned with. The more we suppress them, the more they eat away at us. But if we confront them, there is always something to be learned. The biggest regrets that people feel come from inaction, rather than trying something that didn’t ultimately work out. As a society we tend to over plan and underact. Dan reminds us that action is a form of learning in itself, and the data proves that taking a chance weighs lighter on the psyche than wondering what if. If there’s a sensible risk to be taken, take it. If you feel like you should reach out, reach out. Studies show the biggest regret of all, is the regret of not acting.