Which Is Worse: Regretting What You Did or Didn’t Do?
The soulful science behind woulda, coulda, shoulda
Which is worse: regretting what you did or didn’t do? Which is harder to live with: a misstep or a missed opportunity?
This is a writing prompt I’ve used in a class I teach called “Writing Your World.” The best writing prompts are evocative, and because much of life writing comes down to better understanding ourselves — and our decisions — in relation to the past, as an instructor, I’ve found this prompt particularly useful.
As a therapist and clinical ethicist, I’m always fascinated at the follow-up discussion. Almost without fail, students echo what research shows: more people regret things they didn’t do than things they did, even if those things turned out badly.
What regret is and isn’t
Regret is the emotion that emerges when we realize that the consequences of past decisions or actions, if changed, may have achieved a more desirable outcome. Such negativity about the past can be viewed generally, or it can be focused on a particular situation. In either case, regret tends to be a long-lasting emotion.
Regret is often associated with guilt, shame, disappointment, and remorse, but it differs in a few crucial ways. While regret and guilt are both a reaction to negative consequences from things we did (or didn’t do), and both involve a wish to undo this thing, guilt is typically outward directed (that is, harming others) whereas regret is more self-focused. Guilt also involves a moral component that is not necessarily present in regret; likewise, guilt places greater emphasis on the consequence of an action, rather than the decision to act, which regret does.
Regret and shame share an inward focus; however, shame is generally felt about an unworthy view of oneself, whereas regret is more about an unwanted or misguided choice. Regret and disappointment share upset at a loss of outcome, but they differ with regards to agency: with regret the agency is self, whereas with disappointment it is more of a felt powerless at external forces that are beyond our control. Remorse can follow any of these negative emotions, but it differs insofar as remorse is active, not passive like the…