The Regret Paradox

Regret is a painful feeling, differential from the rest of other painful sensations. What makes Regret more painful than other negative sensations is that it comes associated with a confirmed sight or perception of what’s right, the right thing that was supposed to be done at the moment we did the thing that we are regretting now. The source of pain in this sensation is thus due to finally seeing the truth or the correct thing that we were suppose to do, but now with no revert. That’s why dropping something in the past that we still have the time to do now does not yield the Regret sensation even if what we kept doing in the past was wrong and now we see the right. This is because we still have the time to do the right; we learn to forgive our past easily that now we can wash it by doing the right going forward. Regret is painful because we finally see what we supposed to do YET time to do it is gone and there is no revert. Both of these elements are must to yield the sensation of Regret.

When I reflect on events or actions in the past and see that something was supposed to be done, the right thing subjectively, instead of what was done, I find that at that time when I did the thing the way I already did, I was still seeing the other way of doing it, but still chose to do it the way I did; the way I am basically regretting now. This refines the past paragraph description of regret a bit: regret is not always associated with a SUDDEN realization of the right thing we ought to do instead of what we already did. In many cases, we choose to do something that way while being in full perception of the other way. In this specific case, when we come to regret the thing now after the time has passed, Regret becomes compounded with the Feel of Guilt. So you regret not seeing or doing the right thing and now the time is gone + the sensation of being guilty for not doing what you had to do because you were fully aware of it but chose to neglect.

In this latter case of Regret, I find Regret a bit paradoxical. I am confronted with a situation. I am aware of two options X and Y. I tend to do X, but at the same time I am inclined to Y. I choose to do X anyways – for whatever reason (being easy, being close to my mood…etc.) Now years later, basically when one suffers the consequences of doing X, Regret happens. This is one scenario and it’s straightforward. The second scenario happens when you do X and then realize that no, you should do Y – here the time is still with you to revert your action. You start to think about making the move from X to Y in order not to regret it in the future. However, you start to feel that shifting to Y will make you regret leaving X. Here is the paradox, Regret in X and Regret in Y. What happened? Why when we still have the time to do X or Y, we are chased by the ghost of regret in both?

In my opinion, in such cases, there is one event that is Real Regret and the other is the Fear of Regret, disguised in regret. We see regret in both because we are unable to differentiate between what’s the one that holds real regret and what’s the one that just holds the fear of regret, but not regret. If you are a regret-based thinker, then, you find it difficult to take decisions or choices in your life under these cases when there is no clear distinction. Admittedly, thinking of regret before the event takes place involves sort of prediction to the future; you are trying to anticipate some events that will take place in the future based on your present choice and you are evaluating whether these events are what you want (or want to avoid) or not. And we are not mistaken to fall a prey to such paradox. Because in many cases taking the decision to move from X to Y entails giving away something we cherish at the present – because if not, we wouldn’t have this paradox in the first place, that is, if X has nothing to cherish or give away, we would be happy to leave it altogether to Y with a lot of ease. Since we are evaluating leaving X to go to Y while X still holds something we like at the present, we become afraid of regretting leaving what we liked at the present to something that we perceive as having something we like too when we go to it, but fear that it turns out to be fake or at least less pleasant than what we gave away as a cost. This even becomes more misleading when Y has some rewards, but futuristic and that you choosing to revert to Y, you will still have to bear some hurdles at the beginning before you reach the rewards. Trading off something we like and have NOW (Instant Gratification) to something that we could be liking more but not now in the future is something sufficient to trigger that paradoxical feeling of Regret. We start to question what if what I anticipate that I will like in the future did not turn out as it should; in this case, I will futuristically regret leaving the pleasure of X for that thing. And at the same time, we think, what if I neglected this futuristic liking because I have what I like now, but in the future what I am liking now will fade away and at that time I will be regretting that I did not choose the event in the past that would have brought me the liking now. That is, the future for the now will be the present when you reach it in the future. We travel with our minds in the future and imagine ourselves there; thus, we become as if we are living two existences at the same time. Thinking ahead is one of the challenging humanly ability; unlike animals that are only concerned with the present moment.

Unfortunately, I won’t tend to put conclusions here because there seem to be no definite one, in the sense of putting something to theorize about. Some people say go and do what you have to do. Some Self Help books preaches for do what interests you whatever the case. But, you know, it’s not that easy. There are considerations that tie us always. And these preaches of some Self Help books under the theme of “Living your life at fullest” or “Living the life you want” contradicts Moral Philosophy theories in many ways. That we are moral agents guided also by duties and obligations. “Living the life you want” in the incomplete way Self Help books preaches for simply drops this Moral consideration. They are animals that can just go and live the life they want; because they don’t have moral obligations to any other thing. But for us, as humans, our moral obligations sometimes stand between us and what we want to do. In this case, as thinking humans, I am still not saying that we follow obligations on the account of how we want to live, but per the same Moral Philosophy theories, self-interest is still something of consideration. This is one point. The second point is that not always what contradicts us are obligation and duties. Sometimes it’s just us not knowing exactly what even would better represent our best self-interest. That is, if you have zero obligations to any other object except yourself, you will still witness to Paradox of Regret because you would be unsure which choice X or Y would really achieve your best Self-Interest. So the problem seems to be, in terms of the Paradox of Regret as I explained above, that in defining our real Self-Interest in event + resolving any clashes with Moral Obligations existent.

Thus, my only advise (or sort of conclusion, I would say) is whenever confronted by the Paradox of Regret, that is, being chased by the ghost of Regret in ALL the choices you got, try to 1) clearly define your best Self-Interest and 2) clearly define any possible clashes with Moral Obligations you are tied to. Then, analyze them against each choice you have. Which one would be meeting my best Self-Interest? And in doing so, what Moral Obligations that would collide with it? And are there any ways to resolve this collide? If yes, then, go ahead, choose, and resolve these clashes. If no resolutions to these clashes or middle-way, do I need to make specific sacrifices? And if yes, will the gain I will have outweighs these sacrifices? And if I made them, will I afford losing them? This is because in many cases the gain will outweigh, but one would not afford losing something in the journey till the gain is reached. For example, to lose having a respectable salary in order to be a university professor after some years – that is, living as a graduate student with low level university rank jobs on moderate stipend. When you become finally a professor (just as you wanted), yes it will outweigh the benefit of having good salary working in a company with no interest, but you may not afford living in pity short of money for some years. Again, self-help books would preach sacrifice for the ultimate goal, which is true; however, you are the person who would live it, so you must be aware of them so that you design your psyche, life, and expectations on such choice and your sacrifices for it. The above self-interrogation with questions I listed is a plausible line of assessing choices for the purpose of resolving the Paradox of Regret. Yet, we should be aware that Regret is an integral part of life and that whatever we do, we should be doing it to minimize it, but not to avoid it altogether.

4 thoughts on “The Regret Paradox

  1. ” I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.” Soren Kierkegaard

    The today quote sum it all. No matter what you choose there will always be times of regret as no selection is free of disadvantages. So I guess in order for one to face his fear of regret is to study the disadvantage of each choice and select the choice with the disadvantage that he can tolerate or is accepted to him. If both disadvantages are not accepted or both are accepted then select what is most desired should be selected.

    1. Thanks for sharing your insights into this paramount human experience, regret. To start with, and in pretty much agreement with you, regret is unavoidable in life- because we are humans; we suffer short sight sometimes, we fail to delay gratification, we miscalculate…etc. Regret, in addition to being associated with confronting a disadvantage, is also associated with missing an advantage. Like for example, the cry over the years of youth that went by without doing X action or living X life. Our attempts then is always to try to avoid regret, or minimize the chances of its occurrence; through for example, the approach you are proposing here, which is I agree a systematic way of setting Regret mitigation. One challenge with that approach is the availability of information or truthful inputs to such study. Some experiences in our lives are far-stretched with non-localized consequences. As I hinted on in the post, Prediction plays a significant part in this approach. If you read about such predictability for future incidents, like The Black Swan book by Nassim Taleb, you will see how our predictions to avoid misfortunes and regrets are miserably failing in a rate higher than our successes; and thus our study of choices in order to choose the best that makes us avoid regret is always challenged. The approach is found to be sort of “defusing” the sensation (rather than eliminating it) is to operate on a Value System level and execute in alignment with it, with deep conviction. One would set ultimate Values for his/her life and to base his/her actions and living based on them. I found this approach to be useful because it’s elevated over the situation dimension and independent of Time, which are the elements characterized by the unpredictability and variability properties. Removing liquidating elements from the equation makes our steps in life more grounded and unshakable by futuristic regrets. In situations where one acted in accordance to his value of Loyalty should not bring him/her subsequent regret even if such act costed him/her something else. At that time, one has acted through his deep conviction and perception of the Loyalty value; and this conviction in itself, is enough to defuse regret regardless of the action outcomes. I refuse to lie in the court out of my deep conviction and adherence to sincerity value, and though I was landed in jail, I remain there happy and free that I acted with such value; the knowledge that my lie would have made me out of jail by now would not be shaking this sensation given my absolute conviction about my values. Our job under such approach, which is not easy, is to well-ground these values, whatever they are we choose for ourselves, inside us such that they are not shaken later on; because if they were weak and shaken later on, regret could be even magnified – like the one who refused to lie in court and landed in jail, if his sense of sincerity value got shaken, we will tremendously suffer regret beyond normal because he had the clear and easy option to lie and he didn’t follow it.

      Away from such nobility of approach, boldness is sometimes a cure to regret. We hesitate in many incidents in our lives. You see the good thing your eyes, but you hesitate to take an action to seize that good, whether because it needs effort or simply because you don’t want to leave your comfort zone. In such cases, acting with boldness and courage in many cases helps us avoid experiences of regret. However, under such pretty much intrinsic approach, rush is not be confused with courage and boldness. One may be required to be courageous about an action, but he shouldn’t be reckless. Sometimes, we simply need to stop hesitation and fear; and just decide to go out there and do what we should do as our gut feelings tell us.

  2. I see another paradox of regret. I regret not doing “A” because I did “B”, but by learning from this experience, down the road I do “C” instead of “D”. Do I still regret not doing “A”?

    1. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful reflection. In fact, it touches on an important property of our choices (and regret), which is that our experiences and choices are not discrete points but might constitute a series of connected actions. Like in your case here, having not done A in the first place, later on, you may have to do C instead of D. And the question here would be how your later choice relates to your initial one? If your later choice (after you have missed A already) is getting you closer to results of A, you would have a sort of sense of recovery from your initial regret of not doing A. However, if not doing A is something not recoverable by later choices, but you just made a better choice by doing C this time from your learning experience, I see that the sense of learning from previous mistake may not remove the memory of missing A, but the sense that you learned from your mistakes and improved in your later choice is something satisfactory. In some of these cases, I see some people still regretting not doing A by saying “If I could learn not to do this mistake from the beginning”. People who think in that way usually don’t feel the satisfaction of making a better choice C our of their learning experience. So it depends on how you look at your mistakes and your reactions to them. If you are the type that looks at the present and your continuous improvements, the chance that you will cease to regret A after doing C and rejoice your victory is high. If you are the type of person who thinks in the past and tied to memory, you will always keep in your mind that you still missed A even that this experience has led you to learn and make better choices.

      The importance of this thought brings another dimension which is that mistakes are inevitable and we should forgive our mistakes. The key factor is not to repeat past regrets over and over as we go in our lives. This could be the only meaning out of our past regrets.

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