Living with Regret: An Inevitable Reality

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Regrets and Self-Concept

The saying that life is a roller coaster ride is far from just a good analogy. In life, there are many highs and lows and usually, the lows are what we look back on. Whether it was a missed job opportunity, words you wish you could take back, or the “one that got away”, we always seem to have regrets.

Since regret is considered a universal emotion, researchers have taken a keen interest in understanding it. A recent study suggests that regret may be associated with an individual’s self-concept. Self-concept is defined as the individual's belief about himself or herself, including the person's attributes and who and what the self is (Baumeister, 1999). To grasp what your self-concept is, you may ask “do I have a clear understanding of who I am?” “Am I living up to the person I want to be?” and “am I living my life in a way where my responsibilities are being fulfilled?”

According to psychologist Edward Higgins, self-concept is composed of actual, ideal, and ought selves.

  • Actual Self: Representation of traits and qualities you believe you have.

  • Ideal Self: Representation of traits and qualities you would like to have.

  • Ought Self: Representation of traits and qualities you think you should have.

Based on the idea of self-concept, scientists hypothesized that long-lasting/detrimental regrets are likely caused by disparities between actual and ideal selves rather than actual and ought selves. In short, you are more likely to linger over things that could have been rather than what should have been. In addition, scientists suggested that your method of coping with regret affects the longevity of it. In specific, they believe that there is a more immediate response for coping efforts when you fail to live up to your “ought” self. However, failures catered to your “ideal” self are pushed aside and call for a less urgent response. Ultimately, these regrets have a more detrimental long-term effect in life.  

Research Study

To test out this hypothesis, scientists conducted six studies. In the first study, participants were asked if they regretted failing to live up to the person they would like to be (ideal self) more than failing to live up to the person they should be (ought self) and vice-versa. As predicted, participants experienced more regret when they failed to live up to their ideal self.

In the second and third study, participants were asked to think about specific regrets that held significance in their lives. After recalling their experience, they were asked to determine whether those regrets were ought-based or ideal-based. As predicted, those significant regrets that they recalled were more ideal-based, indicating that the participants were likely to regret failing to live up to their ideal selves.

The fourth and fifth study focused more on the second part of the scientists’ hypothesis. They had predicted that people take immediate action to cope with ought-related regrets whereas ideal-related regrets were put on the back burner. Again, their predictions came true as participants felt that ideal-related regrets could be handled at a later time whereas ought-related regrets required immediate psychological/behavioural repair. A factor that may play into this is the constant pressure and desire to be accepted by society.

The sixth and last study aimed to find the connection between regrets that were resolved and unresolved. Scientists researched whether the resolved/unresolved regrets were related to the participant’s ought selves or their ideal selves. In line with the other studies, it was found that regrets identified as ideal-related did not evoke coping efforts which is why individuals with those regrets tend to believe they are still unresolved. On the other hand, social pressures made participants feel the need to handle their ought-related regrets which is why participants were likely to perceive their regrets as resolved.

What This Means For Us

From this series of studies, we can conclude that living life without regret is next to impossible. Whether it has to do with your personal or professional life, it is natural to reflect and wonder what you could have or should have done differently if you were able to go back in time. What is important to take away from these studies are that not all regrets are the same. Based on the three categories of self-concept, regrets have differences in intensity and number. You can use this information to help reduce the weight of the regrets in your life. For example, if you are the type of person that prioritizes your responsibilities and obligations, then it would be best to think long and hard before making any decisions that could affect those around you. However, if you are defined more by your personal ideal, then you should make decisions that help you move closer to what you would like to have and/or who you would like to become. Remember, in order to minimize the intensity of your regrets, you have to first know who you are and what defines you.

Additional Resources

Baumeister, R. F. (1999). The nature and structure of the self: An overview. In R. Baumeister (Ed.), The self in social psychology (pp. 1-20). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).

Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18, 439-452.

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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