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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 7.5 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


8 Comments


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  1. Adele Meyer says:

    If Edith Piaf had no regrets, no one should!

    I have a colleague at work who regrets everything, and she does it out loud. She regrets she didn’t buy an article of clothing when it was on sale. She regrets she didn’t rent an apartment in town like I did but saddled herself with a townhouse in the suburbs. She regrets that she can’t get motivated to exercise, etc., etc., etc. Needless to say, she’s in poor health, and has been hospitalized twice in the past two years with serious blood pressure problems.

    This woman belongs to a religious group that teaches the world is a horrible, sinful place, and only they will be raised up heavenward at the Second Coming. By admitting how horrible they and the world are, they become receptive to an inflow of divine inspiration. They are extreme. But many people I’ve known had regrets emerging from self loathing instilled by religious teaching. I like Eric Butterworth’s (a Unity minister) definition of sin. He said “S-I-N, Self Inflicted Nonsense.” Overcoming notions of sin and perdition will be an enormous help in transcending regret.

  2. Patrice says:

    Dr. Edelberg, thanks for the regular posts. I look forward to them and frequently pass them on to friends. The article about you in the Sunday Chicago Tribune business section was great to see with the hope that integrative medicine becomes far more widely accepted.

  3. Cindy says:

    This reminds me of the dedication to “The Pause of Mr. Claus” by Arlo Guthrie to the FBI who would take time for the last guy – when you say I don’t have it so bad, just look at that guy – but what about the last guy, no body has it worse than that guy.

  4. Kathy Pichette says:

    I agree with not obsessing about regrets, however, I do take responsibility for my choices and try to make better choices .I think there is a difference. Too many use not regretting as an excuse.

  5. Antonia Olsen says:

    Amen! I look forward to your emails and pass them on to my family and friends – very well stated! Thanks so much!

  6. Karen Cox says:

    Okay, sweet Dr.Edelberg, Edith Piaf was exactly what I needed today. I’m neither regret-filled nor depressive, but in the midst of wretched events, Edith Piaf makes me smile.
    Thanks

  7. Elaine says:

    Wow…. this is my first visit to the Knowledge Base and it truly touched me. When I begin to regret, I visualize a stop sign and think about gratitude and compassion. Now I can also visualize taking a drive by the Church of Second Chances.

  8. Tracy says:

    I obsessively regret giving my virginity to a man i didn’t realize was a perverted midget. I regret it so bad especially now that ive found my husband. It happened 10 yrs ago but i still obsess over the regret to the point of wanting to kill the man.