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?