Regret, Lessons For Our Kids

Dr. Delaney Ruston – A couple of months ago, I spoke with Ethan Kross, the head of University of Michigan’s Emotion and Self Control Lab, about his research. During our call, I asked if he knew anyone researching regret because I had been looking for science in this area and had found so little. He said he did not know of anyone working on the topic.

Little did we know, but author Daniel Pink was just about to release a book called The Power of Regret. 

And that Ethan’s research was in the section of the book regarding strategies for dealing with regret.

Pink had become interested in writing the book because his kid was headed to college, which had started Pink thinking about things he regretted about college. Around this time, he started asking people about their regrets and found that people were drawn to the topic. 

Pink realized there was not one popular book out on the topic. So he called his editor and said he was bagging the book he was working on and delving into regret. 

Because there was so little research out there, Pink got help in creating a survey and amassed a very large sampling of American attitudes about regret. He also set up a place on his website where anyone in the world can write their regrets. 

Regret is a topic I have long felt is under-discussed. 

It is about thinking of something that happened in the past that we had at least some control over and now believe if we had done things differently, things would be better now — for ourselves or others we care about. 

Over the years, I have been asking friends and family about regrets. So often, people will immediately say they “have none.” But the more we delve into the subject, the more they come up with things they would have done differently had they known what they know now. 

In Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, Andrew, the college student who went to an internet addiction recovery center, says, 

“One of my regrets is the fact that I’ve been playing piano for 12 years, and I feel like I really never achieved my full potential with that. Instead, if I had dedicated all my computer time to mastering an instrument, or reading, or exploring things, I would be way above where I am now.” 

Many people I talk to who have regrets only have a mild form. They may have things they would have done differently, but the thoughts in their head don’t come up several times a day. 

I, however, join hands in solidarity with us less fortunate folks who have brains that excessively ruminate on regrets — be it months or years at a time. This reality is part of why I have been fascinated by the topic for so long. One of the key ways I cope with my excessive challenging feelings, i.e., feelings that don’t fit the facts, is to research the topic. I interview people, read studies, and so forth, and then I use that information to help others. 

Here are a few talking points about regret to share with kids: 

We live in a culture that promotes the idea that an ideal life is one without regrets. 

That is hogwash. Regrets, in moderation, serve a wonderful and necessary purpose. 

Our brains experience feelings of regret for a reason.

Reflecting on how things went and how we would have perhaps done things differently is one of the brain’s superpowers. It lets us learn from our past actions so that we can move forward with new wisdom and make different moves. 

Our brains can go overboard and ruminate on feelings of regret.

Our brains are not perfect, and helpful reflection turns into painful rumination for some of us. We can get pulled into a vortex of prolonged negative regret thoughts. It causes some level of suffering, over and over. A ping here  

Sometimes a person realizes their brain is doing that, and sometimes it is not so obvious. If negative self-talk around regrets is somewhere in the concerning zone, it can be helpful to talk about it. People to go to include a thought/ emotion coach like a counselor or therapist or even a wise person in our circles like a cool aunt or an older cousin. 

Many skills can be learned and practiced to navigate unruly regret. 

One of these gets back to Ethan Kross’s work on “self-distancing,” which can help us better regulate hard emotions, including regret. One example is getting distance through space — known as the “fly-on-the-wall” approach.

So if a person’s regret has been, for example, “I messed up by staying on the group chat even though I hated how Jay kept acting.” The skill would be to adopt the stance as a helpful outsider and talk from that perspective by saying something like, “Someone watched a person stay in a group chat even though a person was being cruel on it. Staying on such a chat is really common, yet it is not too late to get off the chat and reach out to Jay to show your support.”

Another example of self-distancing is using “time travel.”  Pink writes in his book, “…one study showed that prompting people to consider how they might feel about a negative situation in ten years reduced their stress and enhanced their problem-solving capabilities compared to contemplating what the situation would be like in a week.” 

One last KEY THING.

What we disclose to our kids about regret is a delicate subject, and this post is not about encouraging people to divulge their regrets to their kids!

Ideas to get the conversation started.

  1. What conversations have we ever had about the theme of regret? About the science of regret?
  2. Try this self-distancing skill as a family. Have someone pick a small regret they have had. Now have the person share what happened and why and then do it again, pretending to be a helpful observer.
  3. Do the same as above and try the time travel technique. How do we think we would feel ten years from now?