By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Will you regret your action or inaction?
Regrets are a common human problem. Some regrets, for some people, are relatively minor, others can cause you a great deal of pain and may require professional intervention. Both economists and psychologists study regret, and they come to very different conclusions about the nature and behavior of regrets. Economist study regrets you might have after making a major purchase, buyer’s remorse, or failing to make a purchase and then seeing that item increased dramatically in price. Most economic regrets fade with time. Emotional regrets, jumping into a relationship, or dropping out of school prematurely, are likely to become more painful as your life progresses.
Lifespan regrets happen when you look back at the past and wish something had happened or you wish that something that did happen had never occurred. Some regrets are a normal part of life others can be destructive of your mental and emotional health.
Troublesome regrets can lead to anxiety, depression, and lowered self-esteem. The most painful emotional regrets are about bad choices, things done and things undone. In the short-term, more people regret taking actions that turned out badly. Pessimists are more likely to accumulate regrets and to judge their action or inaction harshly.
Over the long-term, particularly as people grow older, for many people, their biggest regrets are the things they wish they had done, but their fears kept them from acting.
Unfortunately, sometimes regardless of what you decide, you will face regrets. If you choose to do something you may regret the outcome, and if you choose not to do it you may forever regret not taking action.
Regrets over life’s mistakes, the bad decisions, that involve action fade with time for most people. There are ways to correct or accept the results of many actions. People grow to love their children even when they regret the impulsive sex with an undesirable partner. It’s possible to end most bad relationships; you can break up or get a divorce. Remediating the effects of bad decisions can be painful, but they are possible. The regrets most likely to haunt you, as you grow older, are the regrets over your indecision and inaction.
Healthy regrets or Unhealthy regrets?
Regrets can affect you positively or negatively. Regrets when someone has died remind us of our relationship with that person and can be a normal part of grieving. Regrets can also spur you to change your behavior or move in a new direction. The primary difference between regrets and all other negative emotions is that we regret things about which we had choices. Without a possible choice, you may dislike the outcome, but you are unlikely to regret the choices you made.
Some regrets can be just the push you need to change your course of action. If you regret shopping at a store or eating in a restaurant, you can easily change that decision the next time. Self-blame and rumination fuel unhealthy regrets. Beating yourself up over past choices will lower your self-esteem. In regret, you feel that you have made a bad choice rather than that outside forces have caused something undesirable to happen.
What decisions cause the most long-term regrets?
You are most likely to regret the decisions you made when you had lots of choices (Roese, N., Summerville, A., 2015.) Some choices are irrevocable, like having a child because of impulsive sex. Another major source of regret is those things you always wanted to do, told yourself someday, but just never got around to. Are there things you’re doing now, or things you’ve left undone that will be major sources of regret in the future? Below is a list of the things people frequently report as major causes of regret compiled by adding together the results of multiple studies.
1. Not getting education causes regrets.
In study after study the top regret people report has to do with education. On average one-third of the people surveyed regretted not getting more education They regret not staying in school, not studying hard enough or not pursuing a degree in a subject that interested them. Conflicts between education and finances cause some of these regrets. People drop out of school and take a job because the current income is more attractive than the larger income staying in school might have resulted in.
Many other people regret being seduced by the prospect of making a lot of money in one field, and as a result, pursuing a degree in a field they did not enjoy. They commonly regret not pursuing a degree in an area for which they had a passion. It’s easy to let the cost of more education keep you from following your dream. Following an education in a field because your parents or others talk you into it can also be a huge source of regret. Getting your education in a highly paid field can be a great mistake if you have neither the aptitude nor the interest in that field.
In middle and late-life many people report their greatest life regret is not getting that degree in the subject they were most interested in. One reason, failure to get more education, is number 1 on the list of common regrets is the wide availability in the United States of additional or advanced education. Making the decision not to pursue education is not a one-time decision, but something people must continuously do.
In a survey of senior citizens, the number 1 regret of men was that they hadn’t gotten more education. The primary regret of women was similar; they wished they spent more time developing their mind or intellect (DeGenova MK, 1992.)
Researchers suggest the reason failing to get more education is the number 1 regret in America is because it is seen as the one thing an individual can do that greatly increases their opportunities in all the other life domains.
2. Career choice regrets.
Between 20 and 25 percent of all the people surveyed regretted their career choice. This regret is often linked to failure to get an advanced education or job-specific training. Starting out in life, you need to earn a living. For example, if your uncle owns a landscaping business, you might get a job working for him mowing lawns. After years of doing this kind of work, you may have severe regrets that you didn’t explore other possible career choices.
Other commonly reported regrets about career choices involved letting others talk you out of a career dream. If you always wanted to be an artist, dancer, or another performer, you may have let people talk you out of following your dream. Many people avoid aiming high. Later they regret not having made an effort to become a doctor, lawyer, or other respected professional.
3. Regrets about romantic decisions.
Surprisingly, given all the literature about love, and the number of divorces, only 15 percent of those surveyed reported ongoing regrets about their romantic decisions. One possible reason regrets in this area were less significant may be the frequency with which people can change romantic relationships. Young people were far more likely to express regrets about romantic decisions. Failure to ask someone out or to pursue a relationship with someone were reasons cited for regrets about romantic decisions.
4. Parenting choices can cause regrets.
Parenting choices were a source of regret for 10 percent of survey participants. In studies of the regrets of college students, they were more likely to regret choices involving friendships. As people age, regrets about social relationships become more focused on decisions having to do with children.
Just over 5 percent of people reported regrets in this area. People with regrets in this area are likely to show up in therapy or seek self-help materials to “find themselves.” Losing yourself in relationships and becoming alienated from your feelings can be sources of regrets in this area.
6. Regrets about leisure time activities.
Recreation and hobbies can contribute to good mental health. Surprisingly only about 2 ½ percent of people ever report regrets about their leisure time activities. When I have had clients mention regrets in this area, it usually involved working too much and giving up sports and hobbies that used to bring them joy.
Other areas of regret.
The literature on regret includes six other areas of life about which people sometimes express regret. While these areas can result in painful regrets, they all turned out to be less common than researchers had expected. The other areas of your life that might cause you regrets include finances, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community.
Decisions you are not likely to regret.
When the choice you make seems clearly superior to the alternative, you are less likely to regret that decision. If you fail several classes in your chosen major, you are less likely to regret giving up on that major. When there have been repeated problems in your relationship, breakups, cheating, or violent fights, you are more likely to regret staying in that relationship then leaving it.
Do you have life regrets? Which of those regrets are things from the past you need to accept that which are things in the present you need to change?
You find more about this topic under Regret.
David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.) Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.
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This is a great entry. What if you want to do something but your fear is so paralyzing that you cannot make yourself to do it no matter what, even with the knowledge of later regrets? Is it better to adjust the goal, or how do you go around it? I believe that many people will end up with regrets because their mental/financial/physical state wouldn’t allow them to accomplish certain tasks.
Hello Thomas, thanks for the comment. You’ve asked some really good questions. It bothers me when people say they can’t do something or that it’s impossible. Throughout my career, I’ve seen people do things they never thought possible. One of the things counselors can help you with is creating a feeling of hope, the belief that you can do more than you think. Sometimes, yes, people need to revise their goals. Sometimes you begin by working on improving your mental, financial, or physical condition. Fear and anxiety are nasty creatures, but with help, you can cut them down to a manageable size. It’s important to shift from focusing on what you can’t do to ways to improve the quality of your life by doing the things you can. I hope you’ll subscribe to the counselorssoapbox.com blog and continue to read the posts. I plan to write more posts on this topic and related topics, such as optimism, pessimism, hope and hopelessness, and so on. I would encourage you to work on improving the problem areas of your life so that you reduce possible future regrets as much as possible.
I have been following the blog for a while now, including reading both books, and always look forward to new topics. I find psychology fascinating. Thank you for answering my comment.
Your welcome. And a special thanks for reading both books.