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?

And vs. Or

Resurrection

Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.