Have you ever found yourself in a quiet moment of reflection, thinking about something that you did or didn’t do and wishing that you could turn back the clock and approach the situation differently?  

I have – and for a long time I found that even thinking about what I regret most in life would leave me feeling uneasy. Uneasy in the knowledge that within my grasp was the opportunity to act or behave differently, and I didn’t take it.

It’s not so surprising that we think so much about our regrets – it’s the number one emotion felt by humans, followed by love.

In a recent study of 16,000 individual responses looking into ‘what people regret most in life’, Dan Pink discovered some surprisingly helpful truths about regret.

Firstly, he found that all forms of regret relate back to the same thing: a failure to take a chance – or more precisely a lack of boldness. Apparently, this becomes more prevalent as we get older!

What is interesting about this study of regret is how it relates to motivation.

Pink’s research points to our regrets being a photo-negative of what inspires us. The feeling of regret that you have for having gotten so upset with your team during a recent procedure that didn’t go well, reflects how highly you value your relationship with your team.

The regret that you feel for having to constantly work back late, reflects the inspiration that you get from spending time with your loved ones.

According to Pink, it is from this correlation between regret and values that we can draw inspiration.

Not only this but talking about our regrets rather than bottling them up is therapeutic, enabling us to move beyond them with deeper insights into who we are and what inspires us the most.

I find this simple idea very helpful. We have enough burdens to carry in our life.  Making the shift from an uneasy feeling about a regret to one from which I can draw inspiration – I’ll take that!

However, I don’t feel that this conversation about regret is complete without drawing in the role of guilt (and shame).

I found it useful to understand (more recently in the work by Brene Brown) how these two close cousins work together, particularly in framing up things that I have done in the past for which I feel regret (could have chosen a different path and didn’t).  Do I also feel guilt for having done the wrong thing (and take my punishment) or do my actions define me – a far greater burden to carry?

Recidivism rates in prison go up when prisoners, punished for a crime, feel shame rather than guilt. This makes sense to me – being defined by one’s crimes is far more invidious and quite likely leads to self-loathing and repeat offending.

Acknowledging that our feelings of guilt are important for us to live in a civilised society (we just have to take our punishment and move on) and that the ‘crime’ doesn’t necessarily define us is helpful in putting boundaries around something that otherwise, might easily consume us.

It is also helpful to acknowledgment that we are here to get it right, not be right. 

We’re all a work in progress and there is much work to do – so as you move through your day today with your team, or go home to your family, do the work that needs to be done, try to understand yourself a little bit better and judge yourself a little less harshly.

If upon reading this, you feel that you’d like to reach out to someone,  please do so. This is a part of the work to which I’m referring. Of course, Lincoln is always here for you – there is no group of people, more invested in your wellbeing.

Best of luck