Another reason regrets are dumb

Chicken-regrets illustration

You’ve doubt­less heard the maxim that “You don’t regret the things you do. You regret the things you don’t do.” I’ve never under­stood why so few are both­ered by the major log­i­cal flaw here: You can’t do two things at once. Choose X? You can’t choose Y. Regard­less of which path you choose, there’s some­thing else you won’t be doing.

I think about this a lot when I’m ques­tion­ing past choices or start­ing to second-guess deci­sions made months or years ago. More and more, I’m con­vinced that regrets aren’t signs of bad decision-making but rather reflec­tions of tem­pera­ment and cog­ni­tive style. Regrets don’t reflect objec­tive truth. They’re sim­ply interpretations.

A cou­ple years back, I dipped a toe into the crit­i­cal mael­strom sur­round­ing the book Marry Him, writer Lori Gottlieb’s exhor­ta­tion to younger women to marry that nice if slightly dull boyfriend instead of hold­ing out for true love and risk end­ing up (like Gottlieb—and me) sin­gle at midlife.

Along the spec­trum of Marry Him commentaries—which ranged from the vir­u­lently pro to the vir­u­lently anti—the review I wrote for the Chicago Tri­bune fell some­where in the mid­dle. While I cer­tainly got where Got­tlieb was com­ing from, I couldn’t buy her solution—and not because of its dubi­ous pol­i­tics but because I couldn’t see it work­ing. (Indeed, with some dark humor, I couldn’t stop pic­tur­ing a sea of future middle-aged women, curs­ing that stu­pid book that con­vinced them to marry the guy they’re divorcing.)

The fact is, life is risky. There are no guar­an­tees, no fail-proof roadmaps to a fairy tale end­ing. The answer isn’t to blame our­selves or to look for ways to game the human con­di­tion but rather to do the best we can and accept our essen­tial limitations.

I recently inter­viewed psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff, a lead­ing expert on self-compassion and author of a book by that name, and was struck by what she had to say on this topic: “We love to have an illu­sion of con­trol because it makes us feel safe. In an ironic way, I think what hap­pens when we crit­i­cize our­selves is that we’re say­ing ‘Oh, I should have had con­trol.  If it was some­thing I did, then I did have con­trol, I just made the wrong move.’ When in fact, the real­ity is that I didn’t have a lot of con­trol. I did my best, but I couldn’t make things turn out the way I wanted them to. In a weird way, some­times it’s less scary to peo­ple to blame them­selves than it is to admit that we human beings often don’t have a lot of say over our lives. It’s hard being human!”

My thoughts exactly.

The notion that our biggest regrets tend to stem from things we failed to do bears a strik­ing resem­blance to the maxim that “the grass is always greener on the other side”—the salient dif­fer­ence being that the two are invoked to make oppo­site points. Here again, I’m reminded of the 28 con­flict­ing legal rules famously set forth in a 1950 law review piece. When judges go about inter­pret­ing laws, there are “cor­rect, unchal­lenge­able rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in hap­pily vari­ant direc­tions,” the author dryly concluded.

For her part, along with urg­ing read­ers to make haste and marry, Got­tlieb set out to do the same her­self, albeit belat­edly.  Her pri­mary strat­egy: Be less picky. She expounds on aca­d­e­mic research that places peo­ple in two rel­e­vant groups: “max­i­miz­ers,” who demand the very best, and “sat­is­fi­cers,” who do fine with good enough. As Got­tlieb sees it, the solu­tion is clear. She just needs to switch teams.

It wasn’t until after my review was pub­lished that this thought occurred to me: Got­tlieb has a beau­ti­ful child, a suc­cess­ful writ­ing career. Wouldn’t a true sat­is­fi­cer start by focus­ing there?

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Another reason regrets are dumb

  1. While I did not read Gottlieb’s book, I did read two of her arti­cles in The Atlantic. One was essen­tially a short veri­son of the book. The other, writ­ten some years ear­lier (and about which I wrote a let­ter to the edi­tor), was about how she’d decided to have a child by a sperm doner rather than doing it “the old fash­ioned way”, that is, mar­ry­ing some­one. The 180 degree turn in her pub­lic think­ing really left me feel­ing that she needs to get her sh*t together before she starts sound­ing off in fea­ture arti­cles for major pub­li­ca­tions. Of course, I’m a guy, so maybe I’m see­ing this differently.

    Also, while I don’t dis­agree with Neff, I’ve been recently con­sid­er­ing the idea of not con­trol over one’s life but rather “self-determination,” the idea that we should be free to make the deci­sions (and take the ensu­ing risks) about our own lives. It is when peo­ple feel “stuck” — in a mar­riage, in a job, in a fam­ily sit­u­a­tion, in a social or eth­nic sta­tus, etc. — that the hope­less­ness sets in. I think a good part of self-acceptance is that you were not pre­vented by cir­cum­stances from mak­ing the choices that are right for you at that time.

    Another excel­lent post.

    • As always, many thanks for thought­ful com­ments, Matthew! Con­trol is actu­ally an issue I’ve been think­ing a lot about lately. I’ve read about research that sug­gests that feel­ing in con­trol of our lives/choices is key to life sat­is­fac­tion, but I’m curi­ous about the times when we don’t have as much con­trol as we’d like (often the case in Plan B Nation, though cer­tainly not only here.) How do we go about max­i­miz­ing well-being in such cir­cum­stances? Fod­der for a future post–thanks for spark­ing the thoughts!
      amy gut­man recently posted…I’m back. Here’s why I was gone.My Profile

  2. I tend to agree with Neff. A lot of my regrets stem from cer­tain con­ve­nient fail­ures of mem­ory around the deci­sions I made. Usu­ally, if I bother to remem­ber the rea­sons that I decided to do/ not do some­thing, I real­ize that my deci­sion was not only right (for me), it was the only rea­son­able deci­sion to make in the sit­u­a­tion (given my tem­pera­ment, as you assert).

    Any­hoo, I com­pletely agree that mar­ry­ing a bor­ing guy so that you won’t regret it later is really poor logic.

  3. What tim­ing. I actu­ally just wrote the sen­tence you were refer­ring to, the com­mon “peo­ple more often regret inac­tion rather than action.” I actu­ally DO believe that, and psy­cho­log­i­cal data bear it out (ask psy­chol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists). Yes, you are mak­ing a deci­sion of one thing in place of another, but that thing may be choos­ing the sta­tus quo. I was think­ing about can­cer treat­ment. I hear from scores of women who did not opt to do the most aggres­sive treatments/surgeries and now either regret it or question/have fear sur­round­ing whether they will ulti­mately regret it (if their can­cer returns).

    For exam­ple, many women who opt not to receive chemo won­der if that was the “wrong” thing to do because now their risk of recur­rence is higher. They do not nec­es­sar­ily know what the out­come will be, but their anx­i­ety comes from regret.

    Of course regret is an inter­pre­ta­tion, it’s a sub­jec­tive assess­ment of whether you made the right choice. And what “right” means varies.

    I stud­ied the con­cepts of max­i­miz­ers and sat­is­fi­cers in grad­u­ate school and think that dif­fer­ent deci­sions may fall under each. That is, just because I’m a max­i­mizer in choos­ing a spouse doesn’t mean I’m one in choos­ing a car. Dif­fer­ent deci­sions have dif­fer­ent weights and may also be cor­re­lated with dif­fer­ent poten­tial for regret.

    I do believe we each have dif­fer­ent tol­er­ances for ambi­gu­ity and that can lead us to make dif­fer­ent deci­sions. What’s accept­able in terms of cog­ni­tive uncer­tainty varies, and this may lead us to make deci­sions that are cog­ni­tively comfortable.

    As for your ques­tion at the end, my under­stand­ing of sat­is­fic­ing would say that you’re not ask­ing the right ques­tion. You are look­ing at the byprod­uct of the deci­sion (career, child) and ask­ing, “Isn’t that enough?” That’s not what sat­is­fic­ing is, which is about the cri­te­ria used to make the deci­sion at the time. That is, in choos­ing the actual per­son: is he/she “good enough” rather than “the best”? It isn’t about the out­come or byprod­uct. Your ques­tion gets more at hind­sight, and judg­ing the deci­sion based on its out­come rather than the process used to make it at the time.

    A thought-provoking post.

    P.S. I think Gottlieb’s gen­eral advice in the way you sum­ma­rize it here (to basi­cally “set­tle” rather than max­i­mize) is bad advice! It might be an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment in soci­o­log­i­cal the­ory, but as prac­ti­cal advice with poten­tially cat­a­strophic out­comes, I think not.

    • Thanks for the thought­ful com­ments, Lisa! As for my sum­mary of Got­tlieb, in fair­ness I do think she would stress that she doesn’t mean for women to set­tle but rather to broaden their notions of what con­sti­tutes *not* set­tling. Again, though, in my experience–and I am very much of the demo­graphic about which she writes–we are always doing the best we can given who we are. Telling our­selves we should be dif­fer­ent people–the peo­ple who we may (or may not) become in another decade our two as our lev­els or risk tol­er­ance and base­line expe­ri­ences change–seems unre­al­is­tic and more likely to lead to harsh self-judgment than to improved decision-making.

  4. While I did not agree with the book at all, I am always reminded of a woman I met a num­ber of years ago who was deliri­ously happy. She was the ex-wife of a Hong Kong mil­lion­aire. After two decades of mar­riage and two chil­dren, he con­cocted a story about a kid­nap­ping threat and sent her and the chil­dren on a long round-the-world tour. When she returned from the trip, she found all her belong­ings in stor­age and a new woman installed in her home. She left Hong Kong and, hav­ing been cut off with­out a penny and with nowhere to go, went to live in her home­town in New Hamp­shire. She was liv­ing there on her own for a num­ber of years when she met a retired French Cana­dian trades­man she met through a vol­un­teer pro­gram at the local prison (they were both teach­ing con­victs to read). She told my friend at the time: “He asked me to marry him. I don’t love him, but he’s kind and I’m lonely.” She moved into his trailer. Some months later, she announced to my friend that she had fallen in love with her own hus­band! I have no idea how she con­vinced her­self she was “in love” with him, but when I saw them together they had been mar­ried about six months, and they were like two teenagers! He was very ordi­nary, but a nice guy, decent look­ing, easy to talk to, and he adored her. Maybe she did not need to con­vince her­self of any­thing, but just rec­og­nize a great thing under her nose!

    • This is a great story, Lisa–but to my mind, it tracks what I just wrote in response to Lisa Adams. Her pre­vi­ous self didn’t fall in love with this guy, her new self did. It’s hard to imag­ine her com­ing to this place absent hav­ing trav­eled the life that she did. The human con­di­tion isn’t some­thing we can bypass if we just make smarter choices.

  5. What seems to be miss­ing from the equa­tion is grat­i­tude. Yes, life is full of all kids of “what ifs” and “if onlys” but what gets me to a peace­ful place is GRATITUDE. Well, grat­i­tude and com­pas­sion for myself. No, I shouldn’t have mar­ried the nice guy who turned out to be a world class ass***e, but I am grate­ful for my three amaz­ing adult sons, grate­ful I learned to finally TRUST myself, and I have com­pas­sion for myself that– AT THE TIME– it was prob­a­bly the best deci­sion I could have made. Piti­ful but true and another rea­son to be kind to myself. I’m grate­ful I now have the strength to cre­ate the life I love. I’m grate­ful I know the dif­fer­ence. I’m grate­ful I finally learned to love myself and put myself first– with­out an ounce of guilt!

    Grat­i­tude and com­pas­sion– the unbeat­able combo!

  6. My imme­di­ate reac­tion is: peo­ple actu­ally bought that book? I think there is a dif­fer­ence between reset­ting expec­ta­tions that are unre­al­is­tic or no longer fea­si­ble and decid­ing that one will just “set­tle” for some­thing less and be happy with it know­ing that it isn’t what you want. If Got­tlieb were a friend of mine and sug­gested that this was her approach, I’d try to change her course, ask her what she is hop­ing to accom­plish by being mar­ried, what is the fairy tale that she is hop­ing to find — and how would that look if she set­tled for some­thing else?

    Per­haps it is dif­fer­ent when choos­ing a life part­ner than when choos­ing a job. I’m not one to regret ‘Y’ when I chose ‘X’ and think of that maxim as being more about the ‘Z’ — those things that were not black & white, X or Y choices, but that we steered away from because of myr­iad rea­sons. Some­times those rea­sons fall away or no longer mat­ter — careers end, chil­dren grow up, mort­gages are paid off (or the house is fore­closed), etc — and we can revisit those things that we thought we might have wanted to do years before if it weren’t for obsta­cles that seemed insur­mount­able, options that seemed incal­cu­la­bly risky in the given cir­cum­stances. Real­iz­ing that there are risks, that cir­cum­stances change, and that we can’t always be in con­trol (so dif­fi­cult for me, a clas­sic con­trol freak) is the health­ier approach than set­tling for some­thing that isn’t what we want. Neff is right: it’s hard being human. So why make it harder on our­selves by regret­ting life choices and things that we have no con­trol over?
    Anne Camille recently posted…Weekly Photo Chal­lenge: UnfocusedMy Profile

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