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How To Make Regret Work For You with Dr. Robert Leahy

A psychologist dissects the feeling of regret, and offers advice on how to harness positive outcomes from regret.

As the holiday season and New Year loom ahead, along with all the fun, a lot of us experience difficult feelings, such as regret and loneliness. This week, a psychologist helps define regret and dives into its many manifestations, providing insight on how to reframe regret from rumination and despair into productive ways of thinking by forming healthy habits and focusing on goals, rather than just feelings.

Episode Transcript

Faith: Hi, listeners. Faith here. This week, I’m passing the mic to Courtney Allison, New-York Presbyterian’s Managing Editor.  

This week and next, Courtney will be your guide for a two-part feature checking in on mental health at the end of the year.

As the holiday season and New Year loom ahead, along with all the fun, a lot of us experience difficult feelings, such as regret and loneliness. So, Courtney’s talked to some doctors who share tips on dealing with the tougher side of the season.


Courtney: Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from NewYork Presbyterian. I’m Courtney Allison.

Regret – it’s an uncomfortable emotion, and one that most of us experience at one point or another throughout our lives. 

This week, Dr. Robert Leahy, a psychologist with Weill Cornell Medicine helps us define regret and dives into its many manifestations. He shows us how this messy emotion can be used, believe it or not, to our advantage. 

He provides insight on how to reframe regret from rumination and despair into productive ways of thinking by forming healthy habits and focusing on goals, rather than just feelings.

Here’s Dr. Leahy.

Dr. Leahy: Regret is an unpleasant emotion or set of thoughts sometimes associated with remorse related to decisions that we made to do something or not to do something. So I could regret that I bought a stock or I could regret that I sold the stock, or I could regret that I got into a relationship or regret I did not get out of a relationship. It’s not a pure emotion and it’s not a pure thought. So it’s kind of a combination of the two.

 The way regret manifests itself is in two ways. We have ways in which we anticipate regret and what we call retrospective regrets. So for example, somebody with social anxiety disorder might anticipate if I go to a party and start meeting people, I’ll feel uncomfortable, I’ll get humiliated. So they anticipate regret and that keeps them from going to a party, keeps them from engaging and being proactive. 

The other way regret manifests itself is where people look back on past decisions that they’ve made and then think about how stupid I was, I could have done something else, my life would be much better. And then they ruminate or they criticize themselves.

Courtney: While regret is an unpleasant emotion, can it also be a good thing? Dr. Leahy breaks down ways regret can be productive.

Dr. Leahy: What’s interesting is that kids begin showing the capacity to express regret about the age of six. And the research shows that kids who express regret are actually better able to make decisions, because they’re actually able to learn or anticipate how things won’t work out.

You have the use of anticipatory regret. For example, half the people who are prescribed medication for hypertension a year later don’t take the medication and then run the risk of stroke or heart disease. When they asked patients to think about what it would be like to be in a wheelchair, to have a stroke, to be paralyzed, it significantly increases compliance with taking medication.

Regret can be useful to learn from mistakes. I say never waste a good mistake. If you make a mistake on a decision that you’ve made, or something that you’ve done, like something you’ve said to your partner or something at work, and you’re eating or over drinking, whatever, if you’ve made a mistake look at that opportunity now to learn from that mistake. Progress is a set of experiments of trial and error and errors teach you something about what to try the next time. 

The other way that regret can be useful is what I would call productive guilt. Now obviously guilt can be disabling for people, even leading to suicide. But like all emotions guilt evolved because it was useful. So guilt can be productive if it leads to you avoiding acting out in inappropriate ways because you would anticipate the guilt or if you did something that offended somebody that you would say, “oh, I really learned, I’m sorry I did that.” Productive guilt can lead to sincere apology.

Apologies evolved because what they did is they allowed us to heal a rupture in a relationship. It’s a wonderful human capacity to be sincerely and authentically sorry, and communicate that you feel a sense of remorse and you feel really badly and compassion for the person who you’ve harmed, either inadvertently or intentionally. And people who don’t apologize are not likely to be trusted. One part of that is what I call adaptive humility. And adaptive humility is not saying “I’m a worthless person,” it’s saying “I’m a human being like everybody else. I’ll make mistakes. I have to be accountable.” And the research shows that people who endorse this set of beliefs about adaptive humility have happier marriages and happier relationships.

Courtney: Dr. Leahy explains that there are people who are “maximizers” and people who are “satisfiers.”  “Maximizers” tend to be perfectionists, they may more readily feel regret if the outcome isn’t exactly what they expected. And “satisfiers” tend to be a bit more lenient – people who may be able to settle for less than perfect and with fewer regrets.

Dr. Leahy: People who have a kind of very demanding perfectionistic view about their life or about their emotions are much more likely to have regrets. So people who are, what we call maximizers, uh, who want the very, very best take longer to make decisions, require more information are more likely to regret the outcome, even if the outcome is objectively better than the outcome of somebody who’s just a satisfier. You know, somebody who says 80% is good enough for me.

Also, people who are prone to depression and anxiety are more prone to regret. They’re more prone to ruminate. They’re more prone to criticize themselves. They’re more prone to discount the positives that they actually have or to anticipate regret if they make a change.

There are also people who seem to have a deficit in anticipating regret. For example, people who over drink or misuse drugs or overspend or engage in highly risky behavior. Or people who think they can do anything. There’s no risk. They don’t anticipate regret. On the other hand, they could have regret after the fact. You can see regret pervading all aspects of life whenever a decision is involved.

Your goals should be directing you. For example, I’m not exercising ‘cuz I’m ready at 7:30 in the morning. I’m exercised because my goal is to be healthy and stay in shape and to act according to my values and my values are to be healthy. And so my goal is exercise every day, the behavior is get on the treadmill, work out with the weights, whatever it is. Do that every single day if you can, whether you’re ready or not. It’s focusing on habits, not on readiness, not on motivation, not on the way you feel. Kind of like: make progress, not perfection.

Courtney: If someone is trying to maintain some goals and they make a mistake they can still find reward in progress, even if there are some slip-ups or failures.

Dr. Leahy: This is the kind of thing where living in the real world is a lot different from living in the world that you wish were true. And a lot of regret is based on the idea that I wish the world were an ideal place. It’s kind of what I call existential perfectionism. Like I really want a job where I’m never bored, I’m never frustrated. I’m fulfilled, I’m changing the world, and I’m living a low carbon footprint. So that world generally doesn’t exist for more than a few minutes for most people. And the same thing is true about people’s appearance or their friendships or intimate relationships. This kind of existential perfectionism, I think, which is very characteristic of our culture for a lot of people, really sets us up for regret because nothing in life is gonna live up to your fantasy.

The more time people spend on social media, the more depressed they are and the more envious they are and the more dissatisfied they are because a lot of regret is about expectations.

And the problem with expectations for a lot of people is some people think they cannot change their expectations. What I say is there any way of changing your expectations to match reality? And people will say, “how can I change my expectations? Those are my expectations.” Expectations are just thoughts. You can always change the thought.

Courtney: Finally, Dr. Leahy, shared his takeaways on how regret can help someone grow as a person.

Dr. Leahy: The thing that’s interesting about regret is that it’s the second most commonly mentioned emotion, love being the first. And the other thing is that people actually say in surveys that have been done, they rate regret as in general, one of the most positive emotions, which is surprising in a way cuz it’s painful.

But they say “it motivates me, it helps me learn. I can make myself a better person.” So it’s an interesting thing that regret has gotten such a bad name cuz it can be very painful when you ruminate and criticize yourself, but it also can be a way of growing as well as all of the emotions, jealousy and envy, resentment and ambivalence that we think, “oh, I gotta get rid of those,” as opposed to normalize them. We need to include all of our experiences so we can learn from them and grow from them.

So you can think about regrets as constant learning experiments, as information, as growth, opportunities to change. Regret is part of Homo sapiens as part of being a human being. 


Courtney: Our many thanks to Dr. Robert Leahy. 

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