I’ve been noticing lately how often anticipated regret plays a role in the decision-making process.
Regret can be a helpful emotion, however unpleasant it might be. After all, it is when we feel regret that we might take a closer look at ourselves and our priorities and decide if there are any changes we want to make. Regret can potentially push us to improve ourselves and our situations.
But making decisions to try to avoid regret in the future is a recipe for self-limitation, as is discussed by Jeremy Dean in his post The Power of Regret to Shape Our Future:
“Anticipated regret is such a powerful emotion that it can cause us to avoid risk, lower our expectations, steer us towards the familiar and away from new, interesting experiences.”
I’m in the middle of making a major decision myself, and I notice my fear of regret coming into play big time. I have three basic choices, and whenever I think of any of the three, my first thought is about the potential regret I’ll feel in the future. Unfortunately, this is more a recipe for paralysis than it is a viable decision-making strategy. Not surprisingly, the decision I perceive as the least risky in the long term is also the one that is the most boring and playing-it-safe.
What’s particularly interesting to me is that I’ve made a lot of decisions in the past, and I actively regret very few of them. Even the ones I do wish I’d made differently aren’t black and white: they usually did give me some benefit, even if only that of more knowledge. But when considering feeling regret in the future, I don’t have the gift of hindsight to see both sides, so I’m much more likely to be caught in the trap of only considering the negatives of regret while forgetting the potential positives that haven’t had a chance to happen yet.
It’s also easy to overestimate how unpleasant and lasting the worst case will be. We think we are shielding ourselves from the harm of having something so negative come to pass, when in reality we are exaggerating in our eagerness to avoid a regretful result. This too can distort our decision-making process and dissuade us from taking risks.
I don’t know what decision I’m going to make for myself, but I hope I can keep fears of future regret on the back burner while I’m making it. When I shove those fears aside, I realize how lucky I am to have more than one option, all of which have a decent chance of making me happy.