Don’t cry because it’s over...
Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.
Surely we’ve all heard platitudes like this one, little sayings that we repeat to ourselves or others to mollify the pain of regret. Regret isn't painful merely in the metaphorical sense either; of course it psychologically feels bad to regret the past, but it may also involve some degree of physical hurt. Anecdotally, people typically express their regret by claiming to be “kicking” themselves for some action or inaction. Empirically, researchers have found that—whereas people want to console themselves when they feel disappointed—they report wanting to punish themselves when feeling regret (Zeelenberg & Breugelmans, 2008)
Fortunately, the tale of regret isn’t entirely bleak. Although experiencing regret is aversive, it serves a variety of important functions, foremost of which involves learning from one’s mistakes. For example, a graduate student who thinks to herself, “If only I had worked harder on that paper, then it might have been accepted” may likely be motivated to exert that extra effort on future manuscripts. Indeed, of all negative emotions, people see regret as the most valuable across all five surveyed dimensions: sense-making, approach, avoidance, insight, and social harmony (Saffrey, Summerville, & Roese, 2008).
Of course, regret is not always useful for everybody all the time; people differ, and some situations are more amenable to post-regret personal improvement than others. What factors influence whether we capitalize on regret to improve ourselves? Graduate student Jia Wei Zhang and Professor Serena Chen addressed this question in an article published in last month’s issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In a series of studies, they found that taking a self-compassionate perspective on a regretful memory leads to greater personal improvement. In their first study, Jia Wei and Serena established this association correlationally by examining how people recounted their regret experiences on an online blog. The website welcomes any visitor to anonymously post a story about regret, thus capturing natural variation in how much self-compassion people express, as well as variation in whether they describe any personal improvement. Indeed, the more self-compassionate regret stories also expressed more personal improvement. Extending these findings, their second study showed that participants’ self-reports on a validated measure of trait-level self-compassion also positively correlated with expressions of personal improvement in their regret narratives.
After establishing this link between chronic self-compassionate responses to regret and personal improvement, the natural next question was whether anybody can benefit from thinking about a regret episode with compassion toward themselves. In Study 3, participants again thought about their biggest regret, but a third of them were instructed to write about the memory “from a compassionate and understanding perspective”. Another third in the self-esteem condition wrote about the memory from a self-enhancing perspective—that is, to validate their positive qualities. In the control condition, rather than writing about their regret, participants discussed an enjoyable hobby. Confirming the hypotheses, those who were induced to take a self-compassionate perspective on their regret episodes felt they had experienced more personal growth. One key ingredient in this association was whether participants accepted their regretful experience. Thus, regretful events can potentially instigate a cascade of personal growth and improvement, but it’s important to both accept that the event occurred and reflect upon it from a lens of kindness toward yourself.
Saffrey, C., Summerville, A., & Roese, N. J. (2008). Praise for regret: People value regret above other negative emotions. Motivation and emotion, 32(1), 46-54.
Zeelenberg, M., & Breugelmans, S. M. (2008). The role of interpersonal harm in distinguishing regret from guilt. Emotion, 8(5), 589.
Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244-258.