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.