On the nature of regrets: A personal essay

On the nature of regrets: A personal essay


Nishali Naik/Staff

Regret can sneak up on you even in the most carefree moments. When I think of regret, I am reminded of a poem I once came upon in an issue of The Paris Review. It was called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright. In the poem, Wright’s speaker lies languidly in a hammock as he describes a beautiful scene of nature on a farm at sunset, and the poem ends with these lines:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

The last line struck me by surprise with its sudden change in tone, and it has been one of the most memorable quotes I’ve encountered: “I have wasted my life.”

To me, this line appears to be a bold and possibly mournful declaration, one that I can sympathize with. Not that I think I’ve wasted my entire life, but like any regular human being, I have a few regrets in life — or at least in the 18 years I’ve lived so far.

There is a constant accompanying sense of anxiety when the notion of regret comes to mind. I worry about never having the chance to right past wrongs or achieve the goals I’ve once set out for myself. I worry that there will never be enough time or that I might be too consumed in my day-to-day tasks to remember to look beyond, that I might go on to do something I regret in the name of avoiding regrets.

Regret, as defined by psychologist Melanie Greenberg in her Psychology Today article “The Psychology of Regret,” is “a negative cognitive/emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.”

The last line struck me by surprise with its sudden change in tone, and it has been one of the most memorable quotes I’ve encountered: “I have wasted my life.”

Studies have shown that there are essentially two types of regret: regret over the things we could have done and regret over things that we did wrong. As time goes on, however, it’s more likely than not that one will regret the things they didn’t do.

Whether it be never taking the chance to try something new or never telling someone how much they meant to you, these inactions can create more lasting feelings of remorse or even self-reproach.

Interestingly enough, the experience of regret has been compared among different cultures over time, and researchers have discovered that more people tend to experience feelings of regret in the United States than in other parts of the world. In her article, Greenberg states that this may be because the U.S. citizens tend to highly value individual autonomy.

On the other hand, in collectivist cultures or cultures with fewer opportunities for individual choice, people have no choice but to make the best of their situations. Their lack of individual choice leaves them with less room to make mistakes, so they would naturally have fewer feelings of regret. They wouldn’t blame themselves as much for negative outcomes, as they do not put the same value on individual choice.

Then there’s also the idea of “selves” — psychologists have determined that the regrets we have are almost always tied to the people we are, think we are or want to be.

There are our actual selves, or who we actually are, with the traits and abilities we solely possess. There are our “ought” selves, or who we think we are, along with the traits and abilities we think we do in fact possess. And finally, our ideal selves, the kind that brings about the most regrets — the person we wish to be, with all the best traits, abilities and accomplishments.

As for me, the ideal self is the kind I strive for, even if it’s not always attainable. Most of my regrets stem from not taking risks or avoiding conflicts that would have taken me one step closer to my ideal self. If I had the chance to go back in time and do something — anything — differently, I’d choose to worry less. My anxiety over forming new regrets has hampered my ability to reach that ideal.

In my mind, this ideal self would be more daring, more assertive. This version of me would be able to stick to her goals — meet new people, learn to say no. Though these goals may not be all that adventurous, they’re the steps I hope to take to step out of trepidation and into self-confidence. Failing to live up to these expectations, I feel as though I can never become that best self.

As for me, the ideal self is the kind I strive for, even if it’s not always attainable.

But regret is a thoroughly negative emotion, and it’s something that everyone has to live with. As Greenberg states in her article, it’s always helpful to “harness the functional aspects” of regret. In other words, being able to learn from past wrong actions or inactions can allow us to reflect on what we need to do in order to improve. At the same time, we can also gain a better understanding of our own selves in a way that might teach us to anticipate, and even move past, regret in the future.

So let’s not waste our lives. Though I may never become that best self, I can begin to regret less, leave my hammock before evening falls and look toward tomorrow.

Contact Stella Ho at stellaho@dailycal.org.

The Daily Californian


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