The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Brooding. We all know it’s not allowed. We know that way stagnation lies. (Let it go! Live in the Moment!) Yet, there’s something so seductive about regret. The way it paints an aura of possibility around what has been broken—even seeming to mend it momentarily with “what ifs.” It takes us on a journey through the fantasies of alternative outcomes (“If only I had phoned her back”; “If only I had saved the money”). It tantalizes us with the possibility of reversing our decisions or preventing our accidents. It’s for this reason that, though regret is rarely a comfortable state of mind, it also contains a flicker of pleasure and a strange, if temporary, sort of RELIEF.

The regret of the past was not the same as our own. From the Old French regrés (sorrows or disappointments), the word seems to have first entered the English language in the 1400s, and described grief felt at the loss of a person, or of one’s place in the world. One distinctive difference was that regret was also a kind of performance, an often-heightened expression of sorrow. The “making of regrets,” or regrettes, was a pious yet clamoring affair: the lamentations at a wake, the weeping at funerals. In the sixteenth century—the moment historians associate with the birth of the modern concept of an interiorized self—regret began to harden into its contemporary meaning as a self-reproach, a private anguish felt looking back at some action you wish you’d not committed—or that you wish you had. It was at this time that the threat of this hidden torture, rather than punishment in the hereafter, became a deterrent favored by parents and preachers alike. “For this deed thou shalt for anguish fret,” warned the Calvinist parliamentarian Francis Rous in 1598, and “feed thy wombe with woe and deepe regret.”

Today, regret remains firmly entrenched as a private emotional experience. Yet, look closely and its earlier links with loss still linger. As psychologist Alice Haddon suggests, the regrets we feel most sorely are often the ones that jar hardest with our sense of self. The person who believes herself to be brave sorely regrets not speaking out. The skilled stock-market trader cannot be reconciled to the gamble that cost his client so dear. This is a loss—a painful one too—since those parts of ourselves that we cling to hardest are usually the ones created in defense of some much earlier failure or criticism. For many of us, there’ll be some stupid, throwaway comment made by a parent or teacher that jangles at the back of the mind: the joke that made you sound lazy, or the story about how you were never good at making friends. If you’ve made the effort to prove it wrong, seeing the evidence stack up in its favor can be painful. For this reason, regret is often tangled up in the ways we can be deprived of those roles we are appointed to, or design for ourselves (see: DISAPPOINTMENT).

Regrets are often described as pointless. What’s the use of looking back? It’s true that sometimes regret, like GUILT and SELF-PITY, can stultify and stand in the way of the longer, harder process of making amends (see: REMORSE). But this is not to say that regret is always a bad thing. Researchers from Stanford University’s School of Business have shown that people who are more inclined to self-reproach make better managers: it comes with the territory of having a heightened sense of personal responsibility and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. Trying to understand why we regret some mistakes bitterly while shrugging off others may also be valuable, since it highlights the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and our sometimes impossible standards. Regret—and moving past it—can therefore help us emerge with a more flexible, and resilient, vision of ourselves. Most of all, recognizing when we regret a decision reminds us of the ambivalence that haunts all our lives. Should we have predicted the outcome? Perhaps. But none of us is omniscient, and anyway, who knows what dragons might have been lurking down the path we didn’t take (see: UNCERTAINTY)?

More often than not, what at the time seems an inconsolable loss is not the end of the story. Perhaps we’ll adjust ourselves to our regrets. Perhaps we’ll learn from them. But unlike resignation or acceptance, regret is ultimately a kind of desire for something different to have happened. It makes the mind waver, it gnaws. And by allowing us to imagine the possibility of things ending differently, it contains, rather peculiarly, a little germ of hope.