Most of us will make a few terrible mistakes during our lives, huge mistakes that we may regret for a long time or maybe forever. A few times we just make the wrong decision, with important consequences that in hindsight will keep haunting us: if only we had… Fateful decisions like optimistically investing your savings in a high-risk financial scheme, or impulsively rejecting that one job offer that would have been perfect for you, or sacrificing your stable supportive relationship for a short-lived romantic fling with someone else – you name your own.
I’m talking about big mistakes here, with consequences that can be hard to undo or correct. Destructive choices; missed opportunities; doors slammed close. Undeniable mistakes that in due course will generate serious feelings of regret: the kind of fretting that can contribute to (or even cause) depression.
The older you get, the more difficult it becomes to handle this kind of regret. When you’re still young enough to have an entire life before you, chances are you’ll eventually find a way – and have enough time – to repair some of the fatal consequences of your wrong decision. But when you get older, when most of your life already lies behind you, those consequences will more likely look irreversible: you cannot go back in time to change things, and your options for the future appear more limited.
Regret and Depression: Some Research
Can depression be related to the way we handle our feelings of regret? A group of German researchers tried to find out, and a few months ago they published an interesting research article in Science about this (see footnote).
They did some experiments (involving risk games, brain scans, and more) with three groups of people: (1) healthy young people, (2) mentally healthy older people, and (3) older people suffering from depression. The researchers especially tried to find out how each of these groups reacted in situations where the participants became aware they had missed important opportunities: in other words, when they felt regret.
To cut short a long story, they found that group 2 (the mentally healthy older people) reacted less emotionally and in a more controlled way to regret, while both groups 1 and 3 (the healthy youngsters and the depressed older people) appeared to experience feelings of regret in a more intense, more emotional, less controlled way.
What this suggested is that (1) when you are younger you will feel regret more intensely, perhaps because this can still help you to learn from wrong decisions and to avoid such mistakes in the future; while (2) when you get older, normally some mitigating mechanisms begin to work to prevent you from suffering from regret that will be at that stage of life more pointless anyway; but that (3) when you are older and depressed, this mitigation mechanism somehow fails to kick in, causing you to react in the same emotional way as young people do, suffering more from regret which in your case is fairly pointless.
Of course much can be said about this – for example, in the last group, did their already-present depression cause their regret to be more intense, or is it the other way around? Did their more intense way of handling regret cause their depression to be more acute? Or would this perhaps be just some kind of chicken-or-egg question?
What matters to me here is not the point of different age groups, but the more general point of regret related to futility. I think we can safely assume that the less actual chance we have to correct the outcome of past fatal decisions, the more futile, negative and destructive our feelings of regret will be. This may apply to older people more often, but it will just as well apply to someone young who made an important mistake with fundamentally irreversible consequences. It is this irreversibility that can make regret into something poisonous, into a component of depression.
So what is the best way to handle that kind of regret? The German researchers didn’t answer that question; they only noted that not-depressed older people appeared to feel their regret less intensely. But if I were to simply advise you “so try to feel your regret less intensely”, you would rightly complain that’s a hollow, meaningless advice: I could just as well advise “try to be less depressed”…
My personal view is that a really rational, detached, analytical approach is the best strategy here. If you are haunted and depressed by recurring feelings of intense regret about your failures in the past, sit down for a moment and do the following:
The Five Steps
1. Define for yourself as clearly as you can, in a few brief words, what exactly (and I mean: exactly) it is what you feel regret about. No general terms like “I failed” please: name your worst mistake specifically.
2. Next, ask yourself if there is anything you can actually do in the next days or weeks to change or correct or mitigate this particular thing you regret so deeply. Consider all possibilities. Whether it is saying sorry to someone or going to a lawyer or quitting your job or whatever. Is it a real possibility? Might it help? Is there something you could still try to do?
– If yes, then all you should do is make an specific, scheduled, feasible action plan right away! Skip step 3 and 4, and jump right to 5.
– If no, then the next step should be:
3. Look back carefully at your fatally wrong decision one more time. Tell yourself very consciously that this is your past, and that you’ll have to accept that it’s now too late to change or undo it. And that therefore, any further regret is in fact pointless, futile, negative, and should be barred from your thoughts.
4. Now concentrate no longer on the past, and not on the distant future either: concentrate on the here and now. Think of some unrelated, small activity that is within your scope. Be realistic. Pick something that might be distracting and rewarding, even if only a little, to take up right now.
5. Get up from your seat, and start doing it. Focus fully on what you’ve decided to do.
Will this completely and definitively liberate you from those recurring, nagging, depressing feelings of regret? Of course not. But what it may do is help you (a little) to keep those feelings within reasonable bounds, to defuse them, to make them somewhat better manageable, to prevent them from growing into a full-fledged bout of depression, and perhaps even to put them out of your head for a brief while.
If another day your feelings of regret would come down on you again with their full weight, just sit down again and start all over with those same Five Steps.
To summarize, this strategy can help you achieve two things: (a) to positively confront and defuse your regret instead of trying to run away and still getting overwhelmed by it, and (b) to focus on your actual possibilities instead on what might have been.
For this is what is always at the core of regret: it makes you focus negatively on what, if you hadn’t made that fatal mistake, might have been. To visualize this, here is the Doodle again I drew at the top of this post, this time with a little explanation:
Good. If regret keeps poisoning your life, then I hope this is of some use to you.
I think you can guess what song I’ll include here. There’s one, really only one that qualifies: the famous 1960 chanson Non, je ne regrette rien by the French singer Edith Piaf. Later, this song was covered by countless other artists all over the world.
But did you know that Piaf herself did also sing it in English? She already used to bring the original in a rather dramatic way… and in this English version, her heavy French accent adds an extra dimension to that.
So here she is – Edith Piaf with No Regrets:
(click the “Play” button – if it does not work, install Flash)
• tip: See the Five Steps above.
• footnote 1: The German regret-and-depression research I referred to was published last May in Science: Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging by Stefanie Brassen, Matthias Gamer, Jan Peters, Sebastian Gluth and Christian Büchel. This link will give you the full text only if you subscribe.
For some good background info on this research project, better see the review in Scientific American a few days ago: How to Age Well – The importance of letting regrets go, by Christopher Berger.
• footnote 2: Yes yes yes, you don’t need to tell me. I do know that the “Chicken Or Egg?” picture in this post does show a rooster, while of course the egg should have been coupled to a hen. My mistake. But quite frankly, this is not the worst mistake I’m regretting today. ;-)